Bethlehem is near Jerusalem and the Temple where Jesus is circumcised which was a sign of God's covenant relationship with the Jews. Simeon and Anna meet them and they prophesy. Circumcision and baptism are compared.
Bethlehem is near Jerusalem and the Temple where Jesus is circumcised which was a sign of God's covenant relationship with the Jews. Simeon and Anna meet them and they prophesy. Circumcision and baptism are compared.
Hello and welcome to Series 1 and Episode 10: 'Joseph and Mary bring Jesus to the Temple'.
Introduction and Recap
We're going to be studying in Luke 2: 21 - 38. We're now getting towards the end of the birth narratives, as recorded by Luke, and there's more material from Matthew to add in. If you've been following earlier episodes you'll know that we've been looking at Luke and Matthew's accounts and putting them together in order to see the full story. Luke writes, primarily, from the point of view of Mary and Matthew writes, primarily, from the point of view of Joseph; so we get two sides of a very fascinating story. We've been following a series of events that are extraordinary and miraculous from the very beginning - when the angel Gabriel appeared in the Jewish Temple to the Jewish junior priest, Zechariah, and told him about the forthcoming baby that his wife was going to bear and whose name was going to be John. This was John the Baptist. Then we saw that same angel, shortly afterwards, appearing to Mary, the virgin Mary, before she was married to Joseph (while she was engaged) who was told that she too was going to bear a miraculous child - this time with no human father but miraculously conceived by the work of the Holy Spirit within her womb. We heard about how Joseph had a dream in which an angel explained things to him and encouraged him to look after Mary and then to marry her and take Jesus as his stepson.
In the last episode, we saw how Luke recounts the birth of Jesus and how, in an extraordinary fashion, Mary and Joseph had to travel right across the country - up to 150 km - from Nazareth, their home-town, south to Bethlehem, their ancestral home, their tribal home, because the Romans had instituted a census (where people had to return to their tribal homes and be registered and this was in order for the Romans to ensure they taxed everyone effectively). Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, unexpectedly, at the very time that Jesus was born. It turns out that Bethlehem was the town of King David, where he was born and grew up and called to be king of Israel. We know that Jesus is going to succeed him in taking his monarchy, taking his kingship, and creating a different type of kingdom, the Kingdom of God, which is going to be the means by which God brings salvation to this world. These are the events that have led up to this particular point. Jesus has just been born and the shepherds in the field outside Bethlehem, as we saw in the last episode, have had that incredible encounter with angels and the glory of God: the bright shining light on the hillside. They've been down into the village, into the town, and they've seen the baby Jesus. They've been thrilled, joyful, amazed and overwhelmed as they realise the Messiah is coming and they started telling people around the community about these astonishing events. We take the story a little bit further and we are going to discuss the dedication of Jesus, the naming and, in particular, the circumcision of Jesus - which was a ceremony that was part of the Jewish Law instituted by Moses on the basis of an earlier covenant with Abraham.
Proximity to Jerusalem
Let's read the story first and then we'll talk through some of the implications of this remarkable event. Just keep in mind the geography as I read this story. Mary and Joseph are in Bethlehem just a few days after the birth of Jesus and Bethlehem is very close to the capital city of Jerusalem. It's just only a few kilometres, very easily accessible, and Jerusalem, of course, is not only the capital but it's the spiritual headquarters of Israel and the Jewish people. The Jewish religion (Judaism) is based there; the priesthood is there and, most significantly of all, the Temple is there. The Jewish Temple is where sacrifices were bought, worship was carried out and where the high priest ruled over the priesthood and the religious system. This is where the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees and all the other groups were based. It so happened that Jesus was born very close to Jerusalem and very close to the Temple. If he'd been born in Nazareth, which was his mother's natural home - where she would return and they would return in due course - then he would have been a long way away from Jerusalem, but as it happens they were very close by. Let's read the story, Luke 2: 21 - 38:
“On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived. When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the Temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” The child's father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, (from) the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 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 2:21-38, NIV
We've got another very surprising series of events that happen here. Every episode in this series of birth narratives in Luke and Matthew is filled with surprises. These two people, Simeon and Anna, very surprisingly prophesy, comment and pray around the baby Jesus. We'll come to their comments in a moment. First, let's explain, a little about male circumcision. Male circumcision is practised in some societies, even today, but in the ancient world was particularly associated with the Jews: it was a sign of the covenant between Abraham and God that he asked that his descendants, and he himself, should be circumcised. It was a mark of being a Jew and then when Moses' Law came along, in the Mosaic Law, circumcision was obligatory for all Jewish males. It was a mark of them being Jewish and being in a covenant relationship with God. Jesus was circumcised; it was the obvious thing to do, every male child was circumcised. It marked him out, decisively, as a Jew - and we have to remember Jesus is and was a Jew - and also it marked out the fact that he would live his life obeying the Law of Moses until the very end of his life. This is a theme we'll come back to later. Circumcision was also a sign that the parents had faith in the Jewish God, Yahweh. If you circumcise your child, it shows you believe in Yahweh: you're asking him for cleansing of sin of the parents; you're asking him for blessing on the child and you're identifying yourselves as part of the covenant relationship that the Jews had with their God, Yahweh. That's a little bit of the background as to why circumcision was important. Any Jew who had the opportunity would want to circumcise their child at the same time as they visited the Temple and made the relevant sacrifices which are described in this passage. These are some of the sacrifices: a pair of doves or two young pigeons for poorer people, other sacrifices were suggested for richer people. Joseph and Mary are seen, through this example, as being a relatively poor, simple family.
Let me make a point here whilst we're talking about circumcision. Female circumcision, so-called female genital mutilation, is fundamentally different from male circumcision. There is no comparison and there is no legitimacy to female genital mutilation. It was never practised amongst God's people, the Jews, or in the Christian Church in Biblical period, and would have been strongly disapproved of at that time. Therefore, the Church's position on that should be strong and clear. No comparison should be made between these two practices. Female genital mutilation is a form of mutilation; male circumcision is not, it's a way of marking the child and showing to whom he belongs (and it has some hygienic benefits) and that's the significance of male circumcision in this cultural context.
Simeon and Anna's Prophecies
Joseph and Mary made the journey from Bethlehem just a few kilometres up to Jerusalem, to the Temple. What they imagined would happen, was that they would quietly go to the Temple; quietly make their sacrifice; quietly have the child circumcised; quietly have ritual prayers prayed in a traditional way and with the priest involved; and then quietly go home to Bethlehem and, ultimately, to their real home in Nazareth. That's really what they imagined, but something rather different happened when they got to the Temple! We see a dramatic prophetic encounter. We've had a number of these prophetic encounters already: where people involved in the story prophesy very powerfully about Jesus, or about John the Baptist. We've seen Mary's song, we've seen Zechariah's prophetic song already as examples. We've seen the angel's prophetic statement to the shepherds in the last episode. Something very similar happens here - but in a different context altogether. Simeon was a righteous and devout man. It says he was waiting for the consolation of Israel and Holy Spirit was on him; the consolation of Israel means the time when Israel is going to be redeemed from the rule of Rome (Romans were ruling their country) and be restored to a living faith with the presence of God and the blessing of God evident amongst the people. That consolation of Israel, most Jews believed, would be associated with the coming of the Messiah.
Hopes of the Messiah
They had all sorts of different ideas about what sort of person the Messiah would be: would he be a soldier? Would he be a priest? Would he be a king? Would he be a lawmaker? There were all sorts of versions of what might happen. The common thread was that a Messiah, a deliverer from God and prophesied in the Old Testament, would come and bring consolation to Israel; would bring comfort, peace, and deliverance and get rid of the Romans who were oppressing the Jewish people and making life hard for them and taxing them and forcing them to serve them. Simeon was expecting God to do something and he also had an extraordinary expectation that he would see this Messiah before he died. That's remarkable! That must come through prophetic revelation. How could he possibly have known that? He was very expectant, very filled with faith, and when he saw Joseph and Mary and the child, he came up to Joseph and Mary and gently took the child out of their arms, held the child - the infant child Jesus (eight days old) - and prophesied over him: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace.” In other words, I'm ready to die now. “For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the (light) of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”
He identified the child as the salvation of God, who would bring glory to Israel - in other words, bring fulfilment to the Jewish people; bring meaning to them; bring deliverance for them; and bring salvation to them - but also revelation for the Gentiles. This is a really interesting theme so early in the Gospels. It is clear that Jesus was going to do two things: he was going to bring a spiritual revolution amongst the Jewish people of his day; but he was also going to be a light, a spiritual light, for all the nations of the world which are generally called Gentiles (which basically means the non-Jews). The Gentiles, or the nations, were going to receive light from Jesus. They were going to receive his message and his salvation. This is what Simeon could see prophetically; he could just see it in his mind's eye, that this was a transforming moment in the life of Israel. It was going to be consolation for Israel; it was going to be glory for Israel; it was going to be a light of revelation for the Gentiles. He could see ahead to what was going to happen. Jesus focused, primarily, on the Jewish people during his three-year ministry but he prepared his apostles for travelling and preaching and planting churches all over the world, as far as they could get in their lifetime and for others to follow them, subsequently. So Simeon comes with this great message. That must have been a wonderful experience for Joseph and Mary; a real confirmation to them as they were stepping out in a life of faith and great uncertainty. Here they were in the awe-inspiring circumstances of this huge Jewish Temple: coming in quietly, anonymously, with their tiny newborn baby and suddenly a prophet, Simeon, speaks over the child and says “this is the Messiah who's going to change Israel, who's going to change the world.” Isn't that wonderful?!
Not only have we got the story of Simeon but this is very closely followed by a female prophet - Anna. We know hardly anything about her - just the words here. She doesn't appear again in the story, nor does Simeon, they just appear this once. She was a widow; praying, fasting, worshipping and also expecting God to move in Israel. She spoke words of great blessing and thanksgiving for the child. So we've got two prophets coming in and bringing great words of encouragement but, there's another side too. Simeon also bought a word of warning. He said, in verse 34, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel.”In other words, in the nation of Israel those who believed would rise, those who resisted would fall from grace, and would fall into judgement. In other words, the nation was going to be divided over Jesus. He will be “a sign that (is) spoken against.” His very existence, his miracles, and his life were going to be a sign to the people that would shed light on the darkness of the people. It would be spoken against, “so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” and suffering would also come to Jesus in that process. There's quite a strong and tough prophecy here: Jesus is going to bring a message to the nation which will divide the nation, and also cause him to suffer. These are fairly profound prophetic statements which are easily understood as being fulfilled when you study the whole of the Gospels.Well, it's an amazing story. The impact on Joseph and Mary is hard to calculate; it must have been tremendously reassuring and encouraging to them to have these remarkable prophetic experiences in the Jewish Temple.
I've got one or two thoughts and reflections with which to conclude this episode. First of all, the Jewish Temple is very significant - it's going to be a very significant part of Jesus' life. It is, as I said earlier and which I will repeat on a number of occasions as the Temple is mentioned, the centre of Judaism. It's actually the place the Jews believed that heaven and earth meet together; that God encounters man through the gateway of the Temple. The Temple, the inner sanctuary (known as the Holy of Holies or the Most Holy Place) was a place where God's presence was supposed to be most clearly demonstrated and felt in all the world - that wasn't actually the experience of the priests but, nevertheless, we'll talk about that later on. The theory was there. This was the centre of their worship: the centre of sacrifice; the centre of teaching; the centre of Jewish life. Jesus will return to the Temple often in his ministry. He will live in Galilee, over a hundred kilometres north, a long way away, but he'll be visiting the Temple regularly, throughout his ministry, and the final week of his life will be in Jerusalem and will start with him entering the Temple and overturning trading arrangements there (we'll come to that story later on). He'll be crucified within a very short distance of this Jewish Temple and, when he's crucified, the curtain that divides that Most Holy Place from the rest of the Temple will be torn in two miraculously. The Temple is a very significant symbol and all these things I'm mentioning just briefly here, will be thoroughly explained as we go through the story - but just keep in mind, the Temple is very significant.
The second thing I want to just say, to reiterate really, is that Jesus is and was a Jew. His Jewish identity should be firmly embraced by the Church - it's nothing to be embarrassed about. In an age of frequent anti-Semitism, it's important to remember that Christianity is a religion that came from thoroughly Jewish origins: the Jewish people, the Jewish covenants, the Jewish Old Testament and the Jewish Messiah, Jesus - who was given as a light for the Gentiles who was given to be a blessing to all the nations of the world according to Genesis 12, verse 3, as interpreted through the life of Jesus. Jesus was Jewish and he thought in Jewish ways and we need to keep that in mind. One of the significant applications of that is, that Jesus lived under the Law of Moses. At the time that he came, the Law of Moses was the rule book for Jewish national life: social life, economic life, personal relationships, community life, the justice system, morals, ethics, relating to foreigners and strangers, priesthood, the worship system, the Temple, sacrifices. Everywhere you look in Judaism, the root of the way things were done was in the Law of Moses. They didn't follow the Law of Moses completely or accurately and many other traditions were added in - that's a complication to the story which we'll discuss later on. At this point, I just want to note that the Law of Moses was in operation. At the end of Jesus' life, it became obsolete because the New Covenant came - we'll explain that later on. I want to point out that during Jesus' life, he lived as Galatians 4 says “under the law.” In other words, he obeyed the commands to the Jewish people given by Moses, or through Moses by God in the Law of Moses, which we'll refer to time and again as we discuss the life of Jesus because it's a real point of importance and sometimes of real controversy. Was Jesus obeying the law? Was he not? Was he a lawbreaker? Was he irreligious? This was a question, and an accusation, frequently discussed in the life of Jesus - but it's clear in Scripture that he was born under the law. Galatians 4: 4, says “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,(notice that) to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.” He obeyed the law.
I just want to make one more comment about circumcision. We have already commented on the comparison between male circumcision and female genital mutilation - made the point that they're fundamentally different and cannot be reconciled to each other and that the Bible gives no credence, whatsoever, to female genital mutilation. There's another important application. You see, circumcision marked children to be Jewish just after their birth. For females, their Jewishness was linked to the Jewishness of their male relatives. Jewishness and being part of the faith community came about through this sign of circumcision around the time of birth. In Christianity, we have a different sign of initiation into the faith: that is baptism. We'll talk about that a lot more later on in our studies. Baptism is not the direct equivalent of circumcision. Some traditions in the church apply baptism to infancy and childhood in the same way that male circumcision is applied in childhood, and some people argue that they are comparable symbols but they're not. For a very simple reason: baptism is applied only in the New Testament on profession of faith by someone who is old enough to decide, firmly and clearly, that they want to follow Jesus Christ. It's therefore not applicable to infants. Therefore, we need to be aware that circumcision and baptism are not the equivalent signs of membership of the community in the Old and New Covenants; they're not applied in the same way. Baptism is applied to believers - very often adults - but certainly to believers, who consciously decide to believe in Jesus for themselves and can verify that commitment and demonstrate that it's real in their lives.
It's interesting that prophetic voices have identified the identity and the calling of Jesus at the very beginning of his life. He's only eight days old and there have been all sorts of prophecies: through Mary and through Zechariah; through the angels (through Gabriel, in particular); now through Simeon and through Anna. There have been many prophetic words that point out that the destiny of Jesus is very remarkable and unique. He's the Messiah; he's going to come and bring salvation and bring a challenge to humanity; and bring a light to the Gentiles. This is the Jesus who we worship in the Christian faith, and we're very glad that we have a wonderful story of his birth and the events surrounding his birth: just full of miracles, full of prophecy, full of anticipation of everything that is going to happen in his life and what it means for us.
Thank you for reading.