The Lord's Day Morning
March 1, 2009
“Fulfilling the Law — Finding the Messiah”
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
For a number of weeks now we've been working our way through this great Gospel. We've taken a break the last couple of weeks for our Missions Conference, but we return picking up right where we left off, in Luke 2:21, as Luke introduces us to the very earliest days of Jesus’ life.
Now as he does this, it's important for us to remember that the Apostle Paul states very clearly in Romans 1:17 that his philosophy of ministry was to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. That is, as he went around in the synagogues of Asia Minor, his pattern was to go to synagogue three Sabbath days in a row, preach the gospel from the Old Testament, and then ask, ‘Okay would anybody like to join me for a Bible study?’ And he would gather up interested Jewish believers that wanted to learn more about the things that he was expounding, and eventually he would plant a church that would consist not only of Jewish followers of Jesus (Jewish Christians, we might call them), but also of Gentiles who had come to faith in Jesus Christ. And so in Romans 1:17, he speaks of going “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.”
Now ultimately, that's not unique to Paul. He repeats that again in Romans 2:9. You even see Peter saying something like it in Acts 3:26, where he says He came first for you, but He also came for the whole world. In fact, Peter and the Apostle Paul will both emphatically say that there is one Savior for the whole world, Jesus Christ, for Jew and for Gentile. And, therefore, their pattern of ministry was to press home the claims of truth on the Jewish people for Jesus as the Messiah, and then to press home the truth claim of Jesus on the Gentiles and say that there is one name under heaven by which a person may be saved: the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and so Jesus is the crux of the matter whether you’re Jewish or whether you’re Gentile.
Well, Luke is recording for us these events from the early life of the Lord Jesus Christ, no doubt conscious of the fact that the Apostle Paul is preaching and telling the story in synagogues filled with Jews and is also telling this story to Gentiles around them, and it's very interesting what Luke tells us in this passage. You can easily see how Paul would have used this in his evangelistic preaching in the synagogues or to the Gentiles of Asia Minor.
There are three parts of this passage I want you to notice as we read through it in just a few moments. The first part is the story of Jesus’ circumcision. You’ll find it in verses 21-24. We’re going to read all the way from Luke 2:21 all the way down to verse 40, but if you look at verses 21-24, it's the story of Jesus’ circumcision. In that passage, and also in verse 27 and in verse 39, you will see a repeated phrase: “the Law of the Lord…the Law of the Lord…the Law of the Lord.” Now what's Luke wanting to draw your attention to? That Jesus from His earliest days completely obeyed and fulfilled the Law of Moses. He was completely observant of the Torah. Now how important was that for Jesus’ ability to be the teacher of Israel? Would Israel have accepted someone who was disobedient to the Law of Moses to teach them the truth from the Law of Moses? No. This is vital. And so you can see why this is important for Luke to record, so that both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians could appreciate this about Jesus the Messiah.
Then, the second story in the passage you’ll find in verses 25-35. It's the story of Simeon, a godly Jewish prophet who had prayed a prayer that I bet you had been prayed a thousand times in the history of Israel. I bet a thousand times from the time of Abraham some godly, devout Jew had prayed this — “Lord, don't let me die before I see the Messiah. Could You just let me see the Messiah with my own eyes?” But Simeon was the only one of those devout Jews whose prayer was ever answered with this: “Yes. You will see the Messiah before you die, Simeon.” And Luke introduces you to him. And Simeon makes an astounding announcement to Mary and Joseph and the family gathered there for the circumcision about who Jesus is, because Jesus is the crux of the matter.
Then, the third story in this passage you see in verses 36-40 is the story of Anna, the prophetess. And again, this godly, devout Jewish woman who has been going to the temple for years and years and years is recognized as a woman of absolutely unimpeachable character and of utter religious devotion to the God of Israel. And she sees and hears what happens at the circumcision of Jesus and hears the announcement of Simeon, and she announces it to the gathered multitudes there at the temple. And all of this, all three of these stories, focus on the question, “Who is Jesus?” That's the crux of the matter, and you can see this flowing forth in the Apostle Paul's preaching in the synagogue or in the marketplace, whether he's speaking to Jews or whether he's speaking to Greeks. Jesus is the crux of the question. He's the crux of the issue.
Well, let's pray and ask God's blessing on the reading and hearing of His word.
Heavenly Father, it is Your intention to exalt Christ in the Scriptures so that we will exult in Him. Lord God, by Your Spirit today grant that we would read, mark, learn, hear and so inwardly digest Your truth that as we see Christ exalted, we will exult in Him and Him alone. This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Hear the word of God, Luke 2, beginning in verse 21:
“And at the end of eight days, when He was circumcised, He was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.
“And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.’ Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous 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. And he came in 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
That You have prepared in the
Presence of all peoples,
A light for revelation to the Gentiles,
And for glory to Your people Israel.’
“And His father and His mother marveled at what was said about Him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, ‘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.’
“And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of Him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
“And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon Him.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth on all our hearts.
Shakespeare puts into the mouth of Hamlet in his famous play the words, “To be, or not to be? That is the question.” May of you were force-fed that soliloquy in high school or college and had to memorize it, much to your displeasure. Maybe you memorized it and you didn't even know what it was about. Hamlet's debating about whether it would be better to live or to take his own life. “To be, or not to be? That is the question.” If Luke had been around, I suspect he would have said, ‘Actually, Hamlet, that is not the question. The question is Who is Jesus? That's the question. What do you make of Jesus? Who do you believe that Jesus is? Do you embrace Jesus as He is depicted in the gospels? Do you trust in that Jesus? Do you love that Jesus? Do you worship that Jesus? Do you exult in that Jesus? Do you treasure that Jesus as He is offered in the gospel above everything else? That is the question.’
It's the crux of everything in history and every human life: Who is Jesus? This whole chapter is about answering that question. For Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free, this passage is about answering the question Who is Jesus.
Let me walk you through these three stories and show you five things that Luke tells you in answer to the question Who is Jesus. The first thing you see about Jesus is that Jesus fulfilled the Law of Moses.
You learn that in verses 21-24, but you also learn it in verse 27 and in verse 39. Look again at that passage:
“And at the end of eight days, when He was circumcised… And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord…[verse 24])… to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord….”
And then in verse 27 you’re told again there that “they fulfilled the Law of the Lord,” and then in verse 39, “They performed everything according to the Law of the Lord.”
Now do you think Luke has an agenda in repeating “the Law of the Lord” about 34 times there? Yeah! His point is this. Jesus, from His earliest days, from His childhood, obeyed the whole Mosaic code. That was absolutely essential for Him to be the Teacher of Israel. Would Israel have accepted an uncircumcised, disobedient-to-the-Law-of-Moses teacher coming to Israel to tell Israel what Moses really meant? What the Old Testament was really about? No. Israel would view a person like that as no more than an uncircumcised Philistine. And so Luke is saying, ‘Let me just say that Jesus obeyed the Law of Moses better than Moses did.’ Why? Because Moses broke this very law. Remember that? Moses didn't circumcise his own son, and in Exodus 4 we're told that Moses, who wrote this law, was met by God on the way and the Lord almost killed him because he had failed to obey this law. And Luke is telling you Jesus is better than Moses. He obeyed Moses’ law better than Moses obeyed Moses’ law. From childhood He obeyed the whole Mosaic code. He fulfilled that Law, and that not only enabled Him to speak with authority to Israel as the Teacher of the Law, but it is also one part of His active obedience whereby we are saved.
You understand, my friends, that you need to be perfect to commune with God, both now and forever more. You need to be perfect. Now here's our problem. Not one of us is perfect. Not one of us is good. Not one of us is righteous. Uh-oh! We’re in trouble. What's the way to address that? You can't fix imperfection. You cannot perfect that which was once imperfect, because the imperfect still remains. How then do you address this? Through one perfect Man, who was the Son of God, who was perfect for you; and your sin is imputed to Him, and His righteousness is imputed to you so that you are accepted by God as perfect as you believe in Him. And so His obedience to this Law was absolutely necessary to the salvation of every man, woman, boy and girl from every tribe, tongue, people and nation who believes and trusts in His name alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel. His obedience was necessary for that salvation, and Luke is telling you that from the time He was an infant He was perfectly observant of the Law of God and fulfilled its every demand. No other human being who ever lived — not Paul, not Moses, not Isaiah, not Jeremiah — no one can say that. Only Jesus. He alone fulfilled the totality of God's Law. So there's the first thing that Luke tells you. Who is Jesus? He's the only human being who ever fulfilled the Law of God.
Second, look at verse 21. Don't miss what's being told you in verse 21:
“At the end of eight days, when He was circumcised, He was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.”
In other words, here Christ is formally called by the name Jesus. Now what's significant about that? Well, what does the name mean? The Lord saves…Jehovah saves…Yahweh saves…Jesus, the Lord himself, saves. It is a name that speaks grace. He is given, and He takes a name that speaks of God's mercy, God's grace, God's help, God's deliverance, God's redemption, God's salvation. He could have taken the name King of Righteousness, for that is what He was. He could have taken the name Melchizedek, King of Righteousness. He could have taken the name Wonderful Counselor. He could have taken the name Mighty God. He could have taken the name Everlasting Father. He could have taken the name Lawgiver. He could have taken the name Prophet…Priest…or Judge. He's all of those things. But can you imagine the conversation?
‘My Son, what will we call You as You go into the world for this rescue operation for men and women and boys and girls from every tribe, tongue, people and nation?’
‘Father, what shall I be called when I go into the world? I will take the name Jesus, because I want them to know that they cannot save themselves: only God can save them, and I have come to do just that. God saves.’
And, my friends, that is the crux of the question. Do you know that Jesus? Do you know the Jesus that saves? If you don't know that you need forgiveness of sins and if you don't know that Jesus has come to save, then you don't know the Jesus of the gospels. You may admire Jesus as a miracle worker, or you may view Jesus as the greatest philosopher that ever lived. You could view Him as a radical moral reformer, or the greatest advocate for the poor who ever walked the planet. And if you believed all those things about Him and you didn't believe that He came to save us from our sins, then you’re not believing on the Jesus of Scripture. You’re not believing on the Jesus of the gospel. No, our salvation turns on this question: Do you know Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of sinners? Is He your Savior? Have you understood that you are a sinner desperately in need of something that you cannot provide for yourself, that is only provided for you in Jesus Christ, who is the Savior? The only Savior? And Luke is telling you Jesus is the only name, the only name under heaven, by which a man may be saved. Just as Luke will tell you later in the book of Acts, he's telling you that here now.
There's a third thing he tells you about Jesus, and that is that Jesus lived in humility and in humiliation. Not only did He fulfill the whole Mosaic Law, not only is He the only Savior, but He lived in humility and humiliation. (Now you say, ‘Well, I missed that in the passage…where was that?’ Well, you might have. No Jew would have missed it in the passage. No observant Jew would have missed this, when Luke says this in verses 22 and 24.) Look with me there:
“And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought Him up to Jerusalem….”
Now every Jew hearing that read or spoken in their presence in the days of Luke and Paul would have immediately known what passage in the Law of Moses was being talked about. We would call it Leviticus 12. There weren't chapters in the Bible in those times, but they would have known to have gone right to the passage that we call Leviticus 12. And they knew that in the purification rites what was required was to go to Jerusalem, and a sacrifice was to be offered. Now listen to what Luke tells you in verse 24:
“…to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.’”
Now every observant Jew would have known that that means that this family is poor. Why? Because if you go back to Leviticus 12:1-8, it says that when a child is born a woman is to go to the temple to offer a sacrifice, and that sacrifice shall be comprised of a lamb and a pair of turtledoves or pigeons. But (Leviticus 12:8), if she is too poor to offer a lamb, she may offer the birds instead. Did you realize that? That Mary wasn't able to offer a lamb for the Lamb of God? Just the birds. That's all she could afford. .That's all she and Joseph could afford. They were poor.
And what's Luke telling you? Luke is telling you that from His earliest days, Jesus the Messiah, the Son of Man, like the foxes…less than the foxes, who have holes…the Son of Man has no place to lay His head. It's Luke's way of telling you of the poverty of the Lord Jesus Christ. He's drawing your attention to the fact that Jesus endured humiliation for you from the beginning of the course of His human experience, so that you might not endure the humiliation that you deserve. He took on himself a humiliation that He did not deserve, so that you would not experience the humiliation that you do deserve, as you trust in Him.
The fourth thing that Luke tells you about you’ll see in verses 30-32, especially. Simeon identifies Jesus as the Messiah and says that He is the one Savior appointed by God for both Jew and Gentile.
Look at what he says: “For my eyes have seen Your salvation.” (Verse 30.) In other words, Simeon is saying, ‘Lord, I've prayed all my life that I would not die before I saw the Messiah. I've seen Him! I'm holding Him. I'm holding the One for whom we have been waiting since Adam. I'm holding Him in my hands! I'm looking at Him with my eyes…this is the One that the prophets prophesied of! This is the one that Abraham looked forward to. This is the seed of Abraham, this is the Messiah spoken of by Isaiah and Jeremiah and Daniel. This is the One! I've seen Him!’
You see the effect of this. Luke is saying imagine Jewish people in a synagogue somewhere in Asia Minor hearing Paul tell the story of Simeon, this godly Jew who has been praying to see the Messiah, and he says, ‘I've seen Him.’ He's identifying Jesus as the Messiah.
But he doesn't stop there, because the Messiah is not just for the Jews. Look at verse 31:
“…that You have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
A light for revelation to the Gentiles,
And for glory to Your people Israel.”
What is Luke saying? Luke is saying that Simeon knew from the beginning that Jesus was not just going to be the Savior of faithful Israel. He wasn't just going to be the Savior of the remnant of Israel — believing Israel, that believed the word and believed the promise. He was going to be the Savior of the world, “a light of revelation to the Gentiles…”–the only way of salvation, the one name whereby a man or a woman comes to God. “No one comes to the Father, but by Me,” Jesus says. “No one comes to the Father but by Me.”
You see, he's making it clear again that Jesus is the crux of the issue. “Who is Jesus?” is the question. But he doesn't stop there.
Look at what else Simeon says. He says a third thing that I don't want you to miss. You see it in verses 34 and 35. He speaks this directly to Mary. He says, Mary, let me tell you this: “This child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed.”
What in the world does he mean by that? He means this: How Israel responds to this man Jesus will determine their fate now and forevermore. How every man, woman, boy and girl responds to this Jesus will determine his or her fate both now and forevermore. He will either be for their fall or for their rising.
What does that mean? It means exactly what John meant in John 1, when he said,
“He came to His own, and His own received Him not; but to them that did receive Him, He gave them the power to be the sons of God.”
He is saying, ‘You reject this Jesus, and He is appointed for your fall; but you embrace this Jesus, you trust this Jesus, you believe this Jesus, you love this Jesus, you treasure this Jesus, and you will rise with Him like the dawn, for He is the crux of everything. He is the question. Accept Him and find eternal life; reject Him, and live in death forever. He is the crux of the issue. He is appointed for the rising and falling of many in Israel. Simeon not only identifies Jesus as the Messiah, and the Messiah not only of the Jews but of the Gentiles, but says your eternal destiny hinges upon your response to this Man. Believe on Him, and you will find salvation; turn your back on Him, and you will find only condemnation.
You know, we couldn't have planned it any better. That's exactly what Isaiah says in Isaiah 28. Do you realize that? That's exactly what Isaiah says in Isaiah 28! He says, ‘Israel, good grief, listen! God has drowned the world, He has sent Assyrians, He's about to send the Babylonians, and He's trying to get your attention, that if you live for yourself, if you worship yourself, you’re going to drown, you’re going to die, you’re going to burn eternally. And He's sent prophet after prophet to you (which you have, incidentally, killed), and those prophets come to you and “line upon line, precept upon precept, order upon order” they speak God's truth to you. And you know what you do? (‘Um. Yeah. Interesting. Thanks. Move along.’) Or you kill them.’ And Luke's saying the same thing. He's been appointed for the fall and the rise of many in Israel.
You can't be indifferent about Jesus. If He is who He says He is, then He alone must be exalted, and we must exult in Him alone. He will not allow us…He will not allow us…to halt between two opinions about Him. What does He say to His own disciples? ‘If you don't leave your father and your mother, you’re not worthy of Me.’ What's He saying? He's saying, ‘There is nothing in this world, be it ever so dear to you, that remotely compares to Me. I am the Savior, and you can't be indifferent about Me. You can't be in between about Me. It's Me, or it's the fall.’
Now Anna confirms that. Look at verses 36-38.
You know Luke now shows you this godly woman. She's a woman of impeccable character. She was married for seven years, and then her husband died. I don't know how long she was a widow, but she was a widow for most of her life. If she was married as was typical, in her teens, she was married for seven years, her husband died…she's what? She's 84 now. She’d been a widow for a long, long time. And listen to how Luke describes her. ‘Let me tell you about this woman. First of all, she loved the worship of God. There was no dragging her to worship kicking and screaming. In fact, she never left the temple, day and night. That's all she wanted to do, was worship the Lord. And she did that with both prayer and fasting. You want somebody that's devoted? This woman prays and she fasts. And, furthermore, she denies herself because she's constantly serving the people of God, and she's involved with communion with the saints.’ In other words, he's saying this is a woman of impeccable character, sterling qualities, religious devotion, and love for the one true God and for His worship and for His people. And she comes and she says, ‘The consolation of Jerusalem is here!’ She gets everybody's attention — ‘The consolation of Jerusalem is here!’
What in the world is she talking about? You know what Isaiah said? “Comfort, comfort ye My people. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem.” She's announcing the same thing that Simeon announced to Mary and to Joseph. ‘This is the consolation of Jerusalem! This is the Messiah of Israel! He's here!’
And Luke is saying to you over and over, Who is Jesus? Who is Jesus? He fulfilled the Law perfectly. He is the only Savior of mankind. He lived in poverty on your behalf. He is the Messiah. He is the Savior of Jew and Gentile. He is the consolation of His people. And Luke is saying, ‘Who do you say He is? Who do you believe He is? Do you love Him? Do you trust Him? Do you treasure Him? Do you exult in Him? Do you exalt Him?’ That is the issue. May God grant that your answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” would be by faith. He is the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and I do receive and rest on Him alone, forsaking all others, for salvation as He is offered in the gospel.
Our Lord and our God, grant that we would by faith receive the Jesus of the gospel, who is the only Jesus that there is, and the only Jesus who saves, and all the Jesus that we need. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.