The King Has Arrived: The Very Early Life of Jesus (Part 2)
Following the Law of Moses, the Law of the Lord (Luke 2:21-24)
When the eighth day had come, when the child was to be circumcised, His name was called Jesus, using the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.
And when the days of her purification had ended, according to the Law of Moses, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord. (As it is written in the law of the Lord: “Every male child who opens the womb shall be called holy to the LORD.”) And they did this to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord: “A Pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”
Entering into the Covenant with Abraham
Waaaaaay back in Genesis 17, God made a covenant with Abraham. The sign (or “token,” KJV) of this covenant was circumcision. Hopefully I don’t need to go into describing what circumcision is, because that could get uncomfortable for some people. Suffice it to say, biologically, this circumcision can only be done on males. And it was to be done when the male child was 8 days old.1
For Jesus to be a legitimate heir of Abraham (see Matthew’s genealogy), He had to enter into that covenant and be circumcised on the eighth day. Any of Abraham’s male descendants who was not circumcised according to the commandment was “cut off” from the people of God.2 So it should be no surprise to find Luke (a doctor) mention Jesus undergoing this surgical procedure.3
But Luke’s focus isn’t on the circumcision. That is only given as a time marker. The focus of verse 21 is that the Child was named Jesus that day. Jesus was given that name, not because Mary and Joseph thought it was cool, not that it was a family name (because it wasn’t—see Matthew 1 and Luke3), but because the angel had given them instructions on what to name Him.
In presenting this, Luke shows Mary and Joseph as faithful to the commands of God. They were told (individually) what to name this baby, they remembered the command, and they obeyed.
Following the Law of Moses
We now fast-forward approximately 33 days.4 And here again Luke portrays Mary and Joseph as faithful followers of the commands of God. First it was circumcision, then naming Jesus, now it is one of the 613 commandments of the Old Testament—the offering of a purification sacrifice 40 days after having a baby boy.5
The focus of this verse isn’t on the purification sacrifice (actually two sacrifices, but we will talk about that a bit later), but (like the previous verse) it is used as a time marker for something more important—presenting the firstborn male to God.
The last of the ten plagues was the smiting (killing) of the firstborn throughout Egypt. This is the punishment that finally got Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave. God sent “the destroyer” to kill all the firstborn, but would not permit this “destroyer” to harm the Israelite firstborn.6 But while He spared them, God also laid claim on them. They now belonged to Him (Numbers 3:13).7
From that point onward, all firstborn males of Israel were to be presented to God, and redeemed (bought back) with specific payment of five shekels of silver.8 One author (in 1886) said this was the equivalent of $2.50. If that is accurate, then the cost of redeeming Jesus in accordance to the Law of Moses is the equivalent of $47.46 in 2023.9
Luke explains this by quoting Exodus 13:2: “Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the LORD.” When He says, “holy,” He doesn’t mean “sinless.” All babies are sinless, whether firstborn or not, male or female, Jew or Gentile. What He means is that the firstborn males (and they must be true firstborn, not just the first son, but also the first child) belong to Him. They are to be set apart for Him. And because He has the claim on them, the parents must pay a redemption price—and out of love, that price is incredibly cheap. Cheap enough any family could afford it.
Then Luke focuses on the purification sacrifice, which is actually two different sacrifices. These had to be offered by every mother after their child was born (40 days later for a son, 80 days later for a daughter). It is very important we notice this fact: these sacrifices are explicitly for the mother. Check out what Leviticus 12:6-7 says.
And when the days of her purifying have been fulfilled, for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, to the door of the congregation, to the priest, who shall offer it before the LORD and make an atonement for her. Then she shall be cleansed from the issue of her blood. This is the law for her that has given birth to a male or a female.
Why mention this? Mary offered a sin offering. What does that mean? It means she had sinned. We aren’t told what any of her sins were, but we know she did sin. The official stance of the Roman Catholic Church is that Mary was immaculately conceived (their doctrine to try to side-step their doctrine of “original sin”), and that she did not sin at all—ever. But in offering a sin offering, she either did it honestly, meaning she had sin that needed dealing with—or she did it hypocritically, meaning she lied when she offered it. In either case, she was not sin-free.
Mary’s offering to the Lord was two turtledoves. This offering was only allowable if the family was too poor to afford a lamb (see Leviticus 12:8). Neither Mary nor Joseph were people of means. Jesus chose to be born to humble, poor parents. God chose some of the poorest Israelites to raise His Son.
Being poor does not mean you’re righteous. But poor people are poor are more likely to show a dependence on God than rich people are. Mary and Joseph are one such example.
Simeon the prophet (Luke 2:25-35).
Behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Spirit was upon Him. And it was revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.
And he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for Him after the custom of the law, then he took Him up in his arms, blessed God, and said, “Lord, now let 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 lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.”
And Joseph and His mother were amazed at the things which were spoken by him.
Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against (yes, and a sword will pierce your own soul also), so that the thoughts of many hearts might be revealed.”
Okay, I can die now.
Apparently while Mary and Joseph are at the temple, getting ready to offer the purification sacrifices, a man came up to them. His name was Simeon (or Simon).10 It is almost 100% certain that he was named after Simeon, the second oldest son of Jacob.11 We assume he was an old man, though that isn’t explicitly stated.12
What we know for sure is his faithfulness and dedication to God. He was just (same thing said about Joseph in Matthew 1) or righteous. This means he treated people fairly and right. It means he followed God’s law. He was also devout. This means he took following God seriously. This same word is used of those gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost when Peter preached at the temple (Acts 2:5). When an inspired author calls you righteous and devout, that means God is calling you that. That’s high praise from the Creator of everything!
Simeon was waiting for the “consolation of Israel.” He knew God had promised to set up a Kingdom during the days of the “fourth kingdom” (the Roman Empire—Daniel 2:44). He knew about the promises made to Abraham, to David, and ultimately to all Israel about a coming Messiah who would make things right. And he lived in expectation of seeing it. He wanted to see it, believed it was coming. And God rewarded him.
The Holy Spirit was on him. Luke is very consistent in his use of phrases like this. Every single time he says “the Holy Spirit came upon…” or “the Holy Spirit fell on…” or “…was filled with the Holy Spirit,” he is talking about supernatural power—most often shown by prophesying, speaking in tongues, or speaking an inspired message (and sometimes all three). It is common for people to claim John the Baptizer was the first prophet for 400 years, but that isn’t accurate, because Simeon was one.13
The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that He would get to see the Lord’s Christ (anointed one) before he died. This was a promise that the plan hadn’t been forgotten, that God was acting on behalf of Israel and ultimately all mankind. Did Simeon share this message with others? I can’t imagine him keeping it to himself, even if he didn’t spell it out in “before I die” language.
The Holy Spirit led him to come to the temple that day, and he was waiting for Jesus to arrive. When Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus came in, Simeon grabbed Jesus, held Him, and praised God. Then he said, “Lord now let Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word.” In modern language, “Lord, I can die now, just like you said.”14 That must have been awkward for Mary and Joseph. Some strange man grabs your son and then says, “Okay, I can die now.” Of course, that isn’t where this incident ends, but at least for a moment, I have to think Mary and Joseph were maybe a tab bit concerned for a short moment.
Simeon continued his prayer by calling Jesus “Your salvation.” He understood Jesus was the one God had sent to bring salvation to Jew and Gentile who would follow Him. This salvation was “prepared before the face of all peoples.” This means it is universal. “A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.” The glory of something is its beauty, its glow. Often God’s glory is described as brightness. So ultimately, Simeon says of Jesus that He will be a shining light to lead ALL people—Jew and Gentile alike.
Jesus’ salvation mission isn’t going to be easy
Mary and Joseph stood there amazed at the words of Simeon’s prayer. They already knew at least part of this. But to have a total stranger come make this public proclamation of things you haven’t shared publicly with others (Jesus is the Savior, the Salvation of God)? That’s got to inspire amazement. And did Mary and Joseph realize He would also be Savior for Gentiles? We don’t know. But even if they did, it’s not hard to imagine that some other folks who may have heard this prayer and proclamation might not have been a fan of it (Gentiles?!? No way!!).
Simeon blessed them (Mary and Joseph). Scripture says that without exception, the lesser is blessed by the greater (Hebrews 7:7). This being the case, Simeon was (in whatever way) greater than Joseph and Mary. This kills the idea of Mariolatry (the worship, adoration, and exaltation of Mary done by the Roman Catholic Church). If Simeon is greater, and he a person with sin, then Mary must also have had sin (driving another stake into the heart of the doctrine that Mary never sinned).
He tells Mary Jesus is going to cause some people to fall and rise again. Some will fall because they refuse to believe Him (*cough* Pharisees *cough*). Others who had fallen would rise again (see the tax collectors and sinners who followed Him). And some would do both (Saul of Tarsus fell, but was raised again to new life through baptism). This message was designed to forewarn Mary that Jesus’ mission wasn’t going to be smooth and easy. There would be pushback. His mission wasn’t going to end in universal salvation of all mankind. It wasn’t even going to result in national salvation for Israel. Some would be lost—but the opportunity to rise again through baptism and then rise again in the resurrection was there for everyone.
Jesus would also be a sign which would be spoken against. He was frequently mocked and ridiculed—nowhere more viciously than when He was on the cross, going through the very act of saving mankind. They sarcastically told Him to save Himself, to come down off the cross. They mocked His message, denied His power, ridiculed His role as the King. Mary didn’t know what all was entailed by this prophecy from Simeon, but it was certainly a sobering message.
Then Simeon tells her, “Yes, a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Mary’s heart is going to break. She will be heartbroken as her Son is mocked and murdered. But she will also probably hurt when she finds out His mission means she doesn’t have access to Him like she used to.15 And perhaps some of the heart-brokenness will also come as people in her own hometown reject him (Matthew 13:54-58) and perhaps even besmirch her name as well (John 8:41). So while it would certainly not be easy for Jesus, it also would not be easy for Mary either.16
The final recorded message from Simeon is this: Jesus’ mission was to expose the thoughts of many hearts. Jesus exposed the lies and hypocrisies of the Pharisees on multiple occasions. Sometimes He even read their minds and told the crowd what they were thinking. How people reacted to Jesus exposed their true thoughts and intentions. Were they sincere followers of God? Then they would follow Jesus. Were they doing it for show, for pride, for power, for prestige? Then they would reject and fight against Jesus.
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing even to the point of dividing soul from spirit, and joints from marrow; it is able to judge the desires and thoughts of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).
What does this mean for us today?
Life isn’t fair. Life isn’t easy. If life were fair, Jesus would have had the easiest life. He would have had no enemies, because He always spoke the truth, always did the right thing, always served God, always showed love—even when it meant telling people hard truths.
If life wasn’t fair and wasn’t easy for Jesus, who was sinless—why do we think it ought to be fair and easy for us? All who live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution (2 Timothy 3:12). We aren’t promised an easy life. But we are promised an abundant life if we follow Jesus (John 10:10).
God wants ALL His laws to be followed. 613 laws in the Old Testament. 613! And some of them really seem redundant (read Leviticus) or minor sometimes. But in this short passage we see that faithful people don’t leave out any of the commands of God. Mary and Joseph (1) had Jesus circumcised on day 8, (2) named Him like they were both commanded to do, (3) came immediately after Jesus was 40 days old to offer a purification sacrifice—two offerings, actually, and did it exactly as was written in the Old Testament, and (4) came to present Mary’s firstborn Son to the Lord.
Are there some laws we tend to ignore? Maybe about gossip? Attitudes? Forgiveness? Kindness? Always speaking truth? Showing love? Do we find it easy to make excuses for why we don’t follow some of these commands? Or do we faithfully try to put God first?
Jesus is the Way—the ONLY Way! Simeon’s prophecy said Jesus is the Salvation of God. God only has one way of salvation, and that is Jesus. He is the Salvation for Jews, and the Salvation for Gentiles. Jesus knew what He was saying when He said, “I am THE Way, THE Truth, and THE Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
Have you tried to get in God’s good graces by some other way? Maybe it is through your own efforts (Look at all the wonderful things I’ve done), or maybe through your lack of overt evil (I’ve never killed anyone). Maybe it is through a false gospel (“Ask Jesus into your heart…”). Jesus is the only way, and He set forth the only way you can take that narrow way.
1 This is evidence for the divine authorship of the Bible. The eighth day is the time when Vitamin K levels are highest in the body, which helps with the healing. Today when circumcisions are done, they do it earlier (1 or 2 days old, frequently), but they also give the baby a Vitamin K shot in order to help with the healing. Apparently we can’t wait the 6-7 days to get to day eight anymore.
2 Genesis 17:10-14.
3 According to some traditions, this was usually done by a priest.
4 Leviticus 12:2-4.
5 Luke actually says “when the days of their purification had finished…” Yet the purification sacrifice was only for the mother according to the Law of Moses. How do we rectify this? Some have suggested that Joseph had become unclean as well (those who suggest such usually don’t say how, but it could be from sexual contact while Mary is considered unclean, or perhaps some other reason). Others suggest Joseph as head of the household was responsible for the cost of the sacrifice, and as such was grouped together with Mary in this instance. I personally think it more likely that Joseph isn’t being considered in the word their, but that it refers to Mary and Jesus.
6 Some translations (NLT, for example) use the phrase “destroying angel,” even though the word “angel” is not in the Hebrew text. The idea of an “angel of death” or “death angel” appears to come from Psalm 78:49, which, in describing the Ten Plagues, says God sent “destroying angels” (NIV) to accomplish His wrath.
7 There is a lot more detail which we have left out regarding the firstborn Israelites during the Exodus. They were all counted up, and God took the tribe of Levi in place of the firstborn of the rest of the tribes. However, the numbers didn’t match up, and so sacrifices/gifts had to be offered to redeem (buy back) the extra firstborn Israelites that weren’t covered by God taking the tribe of Levi (Numbers 3:40-51).
8 Numbers 18:15-16. This shekel was weighed according to the sanctuary shekel, apparently a standard unit of measurement for them.
10 Simon and Simeon are two different versions of the same name. Simon Peter is called both (see Acts 15:6-14, especially verses 7 and 14, as well as Acts 5:8).
11 The tribe of Simeon disappears early in the biblical record. By Jacob’s prophecy at the end of his life, Simeon was truly scattered among the other tribes. Their inheritance was in the middle of the tribe of Judah, and was eventually absorbed into Judah.
12 This is probably because the Holy Spirit had told him he wouldn’t die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ (Luke 2:26). This makes more sense if we imagine an older man, but it isn’t required.
13 Zachariah (John’s father) was also one, even if it was just for a moment.
14 It is worth noting that Simeon was told something by the Holy Spirit, but he attributes it to God. The Holy Spirit is God (see Acts 5:3-4).
15 Luke 8:19-21.
16 Joseph was dead before Jesus’ death on the cross. Otherwise Jesus would have never told John to take care of Mary as his own mother, and Mary then living with John from that day forward (John 19:26-27).