The Lord's Day Morning
December 24, 2006
Luke's Christmas Liturgy
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke, chapter two. We come today to the fourth of those songs of the Nativity in the Gospel of Luke that we've been studying this month. Isn't it interesting the similarities that these songs have? They regularly celebrate the fulfillment in Christ of God's original promises to Abraham They regularly give glory to God in what He is doing in the sending of the Messiah into this world. They regularly stress the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in the life and birth of Jesus Christ. We see the same in the passage we're going to study today. Luke is confirming for us many truths about the Scriptures and about Christ, even as he recounts this story to us.
I want to read the context of the passage today. Our concentration will be on verses 29-32 where we actually find the song of Simeon, this little-known New Testament saint), but I want you to see the story that precedes that song (beginning in verse 21, and I want you to see his words especially to Mary after he sings the song in verses 34-35. And so we’ll read from Luke 2:21-35. Let's look to God in prayer before we read His word.
Lord, this is Your word. We ask that You would by Your Spirit enable us to respond to it in belief…in faith. We are in the midst of a season of sentiments; many of those sentiments are wholesome sentiments: families reunited and the joy that is attendant with those experiences of reunion and fellowship; memories of Christmases past. Lord, this is a season of the year when hearts are full. But we would not simply hear this word because of the sentiment that it brings to mind. We would hear this word as the word of the living God for our hearts for the living of these days, and so we need Your Holy Spirit. Open our eyes, Lord, to behold wonderful truth from Your word. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the word of God:
“And when eight days were completed before His circumcision, His name was then called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.
“And when the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’), and to offer sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, ‘A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.’ And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking 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 carry out for Him the custom of the Law, then he [that is, Simeon] took Him into his arms, and blessed God, and said,
‘Now Lord, Thou dost let Thy bond-servant depart
In peace, according to Thy word;
For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation,
Which Thou has prepared in the presence of all peoples,
A light of revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Thy people Israel.’
“And His father and mother were amazed at the things which were being said about Him. And Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, ‘Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed–and a sword will pierce even your own soul–to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.’”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
What were they singing about that first Noel, that first Christmas? We've already seen some of what they were singing about. The angels were singing about the glory of God in the very highest, and the reconciliation, the peace that He was bringing to all those who love Him, to all those who trust in the Christ whom He was sending into the world. Zacharias was singing about the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant: the promises of God given, lo, those many years ago — indeed, all the way back to the very first promise in the Bible. And Simeon? What was he singing about? He too was singing about the fulfillment of God's covenant promises, that God had been faithful to the word that He had given to His people. And he was singing about the coming of the Messiah into the world, and of the glory of that Messiah.
As we look at the content of Simeon's song this morning, I want you to see five or six things–one thing that comes before the song, four things in the song, and then one thing that comes after the song that Simeon sings.
I. The Lord always has His people.
The first thing I want you to see here is that the Lord always has His people. You know, there are times in our lives where we perhaps feel like we're the only Christian around. It may be in the context of our family, and we feel like “Lord, I'm the only one in my family that believes.” It may be in the context of school. We may be off at college or university and feel like we're part of a very small cadre of Christians, surrounded by unbelievers. Maybe at work we feel like “I'm the only one in my office that believes. I feel alone.” And this passage is reminding us how the Lord always has His people. We may feel like Elijah of old: “Lord, I, only I, am left to serve You.” But there are always 7,000 who haven't bowed the knee to Baal, and Simeon's a reminder of that.
You know, these weren't the best of times for Israel. Israel had fallen on hard times. This was not the high point of Israel's love to God, trust in God, faith in His promises, obedience to His word. This was not the high point of Israel's history. This was a dark time for Israel when Jesus came into the world, and yet Luke is telling you there are still godly, humble, devout, passionate believers in the living God. People who trust His word, they’re there! They may not be in the hierarchy, they may not be in government leadership, they may not be the celebrities of the day in Israel, but they are there, and such is this man Simeon. And you know what? We don't know anything about this man except what is written here in Luke 2. We don't know where he came from. We don't hear about him again in the New Testament. We don't know when he died. Did he go home and die after meeting Jesus and His family in the temple that day? Did he live on three more years? Ten more years? We don't know anything about him. He's one of those humble, godly believers that were there in Israel — perhaps invisible to the eyes of many. And so Simeon himself is a reminder that God always has His people. That should be an encouragement to you. The Lord has His people. You are not alone. You may feel like you are more and more out of step with your culture, you may feel like you are more and more strange in the eyes of your contemporaries because of your trust in Christ, and your belief in the Bible, and your following after the Lord Jesus Christ. But He always has His people.
Have you ever gone back to a reunion — a high school or a college reunion — and you were surprised to meet a friend who was a believer then when you were there in high school or college with that friend, but you didn't know it? Maybe you’re a little ashamed that they didn't know that you were a believer either, but it encouraged you to realize that the Lord had this person there and you didn't even realize it.
No, there's Simeon. The Lord always has His people. Here's a believer. Yes, the chief priest and scribes, the Pharisees — they will oppose Christ. But there are humble, godly, Bible-believing followers of the living God right there in Israel even in these dark days, and Simeon is such a one. What an encouragement to us! God always has His people.
But there's a second thing to learn as well, and I want you to see it in verse 29. Here's the beginning of the song (the King James went like this):
“Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word.”
Our modern translations tend to render it something like this:
“Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace according to Your word.”
But the beautiful thing about this is God has made a promise to Simeon that Simeon has seen God fulfill, and Simeon is saying ‘Lord, You were faithful to Your word to me. I can die in peace, because You promise has been fulfilled to me.’
II. Those who trust in God and His Word can depart this life in peace.
And there's a lot to learn from that, but the one thing that I want to mention to you right now is simply this: Those who trust in God and His word can depart this life in peace. Everybody's going to depart this life one day, somehow; but not everybody will depart this life in peace. And Simeon says because he has had a promise from God which God has fulfilled, ‘Lord, I can depart this life in peace. You can take me home, because You have been faithful to Your word.’ Notice again how he puts it: “Let Your servant depart…” or “You can let Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word.” Simeon had believed God's word, and God had proven Himself faithful.
That's very interesting, friends. You can look at the Bible and the Bible is filled with at least two kinds of people. There are many, many people in the Bible to whom God had made a promise and then He fulfills it. He fulfills it right before their very eyes in their lifetime, unmistakably. And then there are many, many other people in the Bible to whom God makes a promise and they die without seeing that promise fulfilled. Simeon was given a promise that he would see the Messiah with his own eyes, and he did. Abraham was given a promise that he would be the father of a multitude of nations, and that the whole cosmos would belong to him. He died without seeing that promise. And to everyone that God gives a promise in His word that is not fulfilled in their lifetime, He says ‘I want you to look at those people over in the Bible to whom I gave a promise and fulfilled it, and then I want you to remember this: I, the Lord, have spoken it. Will it not be done?’
To everyone to whom God has given a promise and they have not seen with their own eyes the fulfillment of it, He points to all those people in Scripture that He gave a promise to and that He kept, and He says ‘I kept it for them. You ask any one of them did I ever fail to fulfill My promise. Not a one of them…not a one of them…will say ‘The Lord failed me.’ Now, for you who are waiting, I, the Lord, have spoken it. I will do it. Believe in Me.’ And you say ‘But the Lord hasn't come to me in a dream and told me I'm going to see the Messiah.’ I understand that. He hasn't done that for me either, but He's given me His word. He's given you His word, and He's saying ‘Test Me and find Me faithful.’
You see, the peace that Simeon speaks of does not fundamentally derive from this miraculous revelation and fulfillment. It fundamentally derives from God's word of promise which he believed. Yes, he saw it with his own eyes — and, my friends, you too will one day, if you trust in Christ, see this promise fulfilled with your own eyes. And so you can have the same peace that Simeon had without the special revelation, because you have received the special revelation of God in His word. Now, Simeon is reminding us — Luke is reminding us — that those who trust in God and His word depart this life in peace.
J.C. Ryle has this beautiful sentence that he says about Simeon. He says, “He speaks like one for whom the grave has lost its terrors, and the world its charms.” And that's so true. He did not fear death. He did not fear the grave. And he was not in love with the world so that he just had to be torn away from it. He was ready to go home in peace, because he believed the word of God. Friend, you can be ready to go home in peace. Not in resignation, not because you’re tired and you just can't go on anymore, but you can be ready to go home in peace if you will believe the word of God. That's the second thing we learn.
III. Jesus is the only source of peace.
The third thing we learn, you’ll see in verse 30. What's the source of Simeon's confidence? How can he have peace in the face of death? What's the origin of his peace? The origin of that peace, we are told in verse 30, is Jesus.
Now, you look at verse 30 and you don't see Jesus’ name, so what in the world am I talking about? Look at it. “For my eyes have seen…” [what?] “…Thy salvation.” Who was Simeon holding when he said these words? He was holding Jesus. Can you imagine the scene in the temple? This man, a stranger to Mary and Joseph, walks up to them:
‘I'm Simeon. Your Son is the Messiah. May I hold Him?’
What would you be thinking as a parent? And he takes Him in his arms and he says, “Lord, I have seen Your salvation.” Because salvation is in Christ. It's in Jesus. Jesus is salvation. Salvation is in Him. All those who are in Him by faith, united to Him by the work of the Holy Spirit, have the fullness of salvation, and there is no salvation outside of Him. To see Him is to see salvation. That's the origin of Simeon's peace: the salvation of God provided in Jesus Christ, and he can call Jesus salvation, and salvation Jesus. “Lord, I've seen salvation because I've seen Jesus.”
Matthew Henry has this wonderful devotional allegorical gloss on this passage, and he says:
“If you want to see salvation, you have to go to the temple in the Spirit.”
It's a way that he says ‘You want to see Jesus? You want to see the fullness of salvation? Then get under His word in the gathering of God's people.’
You know, Simeon had to wait his whole life to see what he saw, but every Sabbath he was under the word; and the word was being stored up in his heart so that when the day came that the answer to God's promise came about, he was ready. His heart was filled up with the word. And so it is with you and me. We store up the word in our heart, Lord's Day after Lord's Day, so that in those times when we need to believe God's promise, that word has been stored in our hearts. We've gone to the temple in the Spirit, and there we've met Jesus. We've met salvation in Him.
Luke is reminding us here that our confidence in the face of death – the origin of our peace – is in Jesus. And, yes, you say ‘I've never seen Jesus. Simeon held Him in his arms, but I've never laid eyes on Him.’ Peter talked about that. So did John. We love Him whom we have not seen, and yet one day we will see Him as He is. But even now, my friends, you know more about Jesus than Simeon knew about Him. You know how the story ends. You know of His life, of His ministry, of His death, of His burial, of His resurrection, of His ascension. You know that He is at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, ruling the world by His word and Spirit. Simeon did not see these things. He saw the Baby — weak, dependent, small, lowly. You have seen through the word the exalted Christ. Should you not trust Him?
IV. Jesus is the only way of salvation.
There's a fourth thing we learn here, as well. You see it in verse 31. Simeon makes it clear that Jesus is not just a way of salvation. He is the way of salvation. Notice how he puts it: “For my eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared in the presence of all people, a light of revelation to the Gentiles….”
Simeon is confessing that Jesus the Messiah was not simply the Messiah for Israel. He was not simply the Savior of the Jewish people…the Savior of the ethnic and national people of Israel. He was the Savior of the world. He was a light to the Gentiles. His coming into this world has come before the face of all peoples. Simeon is reminding us that there is salvation in Jesus the Messiah alone. He is the one Savior for all nations. I understand how unpopular a teaching that is today, how “un-theologically correct” a teaching that is today. If you let that one be known abroad in some circles, you’ll immediately be called a bigot, and they’ll suspect you of being capable of the worst sorts of intolerance and abuse (and even genocide) for believing such things. But Simeon proclaims it, and it's a reflection not of a narrow heart, a shriveled heart, but an enlarged heart. Simeon can already conceive of a day when men and women and boys and girls from every tribe and tongue and people and nation will come to Christ, to the Messiah, and believe in Him, and it rejoices his heart. He bears no hate for the nations! He has hope for the nations, that they will come to Christ! He is not involved in a conspiracy to destroy them, he's involved in a conspiracy to bless them! He wants the nations — the Gentiles, the pagans, the barbarians, the Greeks — he wants all of them to know Christ, to know God, to know the fullness of what God has intended for us. He acknowledges that that can only happen in Jesus Christ, because Jesus is not just a way of salvation, He is the way of salvation.
V. Jesus is the glory of all His people.
But there's a fifth thing, too. You see it in verse 32. Jesus is not only the way of salvation for all peoples, He is the glory of all His people. Notice how he puts it. Jesus is a light to lighten the Gentiles, “…and the glory of Thy people Israel.”
Simeon glories in the Messiah, delights in the Messiah, shows that his deepest desires — that his heart's longings — are set upon the Messiah. And that's how every believer thinks about the Lord Jesus. We glory in Him. We delight in Him. We think about Him. We read about Him. We meditate about Him. We pray to Him and by Him. We long for the day when the nations will bow and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father. All our hopes are pinned on that day when He is confessed by every tribe and tongue and nation.
Samuel Rutherford sings about that hope in his great hymn…Emmanuel's land…The Sands of Time are Sinking. Somebody met me at the door this morning and said, “Is it true that that hymn has 19 stanzas?” and I said, “Yes, at least 19 stanzas! Maybe more.” We only have four, I think, in our hymnbook, but they are good selections. It goes like this:
“The sands of time are sinking, [the day of this age is running out]
The dawn of heaven breaks;
The summer morn I've sighed for, the fair sweet morn awakes.
Dark, dark has been the midnight, but dayspring is at hand,
And glory, glory dwelleth in Emmanuel's land.”
Samuel Rutherford was a Scot, and if you've ever spent a year in Scotland you know that winter is long and dark in Scotland. The days are about four and a half or five hours long in the middle of winter in Scotland. The sun comes up at about 10; it goes down at about 2. And consequently, Scots are sun worshippers! They cannot wait for the sun to come out! That's why they take all their vacations in the Mediterranean. They hop on a plane and they go to the Mediterranean.
And here he is comparing the coming of heaven and the coming of future glory to a beautiful summer morning. (And of course, summer morning in Scotland begins about 3 in the morning, and it lasts till about midnight.) And he says ‘I've been waiting for this heaven of glory to come,’ and then he begins describing what he sees in this heaven of glory.
“The King there in His beauty without a veil is seen;
It were a well-spent journey, though seven deaths lay between.”
[Rutherford's saying ‘I could have died seven times and it would have been worth it to see this.’]
“The Lamb with His fair army doth on Mount Zion stand,
And glory, glory dwelleth in Emmanuel's land.”
[He's saying this land, this place, it's glorious! All of it! And then he begins to describe Christ.]
“O Christ, He is the fountain, the deep, sweet well of love;
The streams of earth I've tasted, more deep I’ll drink above.
There to an ocean fullness His mercy doth expand,
And glory, glory dwelleth in Emmanuel's land.”
But now his eyes fall directly on Christ, and he says:
“The Bride eyes not her garment, but her dear bridegroom's face.
I will not gaze at glory, but on my King of grace.
Not at the crown He giveth, but on His pierced hands;
The Lamb is all the glory
Of Emmanuel's land.”
The whole land is glorious, but there's nothing more glorious than the King, nothing more glorious than the Lamb. His heart is set on Christ. His heart is set on Jesus. His desires are there, his longings are there, his love is there. He glories in Jesus Christ. That's how every believer is. And so Simeon speaks of Jesus as the glory of God's people Israel.
VI. Jesus will be the dividing point of His people and of all mankind
But there's one last thing to learn in this passage, and it comes in the words spoken by Simeon to Mary. You remember that after he shares this prophecy, this song, Joseph and Mary are amazed. They’re amazed not because they hadn't heard any of what Simeon had said before – they had heard the shepherds no doubt report what the angels had said; they themselves had been visited by angels; they knew that Jesus was the Messiah (however they were taking that in). But to have a stranger come up to them and confirm them, this was truly wonder-causing. They were filled with wonder and bafflement.
But now Simeon takes Mary aside and says one more thing to her. He says, notice in verses 34 and 35:
“Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed–and a sword will pierce even your own soul–to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
Simeon even tells Mary of the pain that she will experience as she sees her Son's ministry rejected, His life taken, bearing the sins of the world on a cross. But he says to her ‘Mary, I want you to understand this. Your Son, Jesus, has been appointed not only for the rise, but for the fall of many in Israel.’
You see what Simeon is saying: that this Jesus will be the dividing point of His people and of all mankind. There will be those who love and trust Him, and they will share in all the glory of God; but those who do not trust Him, those who turn their backs on Him, those who are indifferent to Him, those who do not have faith in Him, He has been appointed for their fall.
You know, it would be a tragedy to enjoy all the beauties and the glories of this season in which we celebrate the coming of Christ into this world, and yet not to trust in Him. Because if you are here today trusting in Him, then He has been appointed for your rising, and you will share in His glory forever. But if you are not trusting Him today, it may be that He has been appointed for your falling. And the only way that He will arise as the Son of Righteousness for you is if you trust in Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel.
As you celebrate the Lord's birth tomorrow, may God grant that you would celebrate that birth believing on Him who has been appointed for a light to the nations, that you might share in His glory forever.
Heavenly Father, this Emmanuel, this God with us, this Jesus the Messiah, the Christ whom You have sent into this world is the only Savior, but He is all the Savior we need. Grant today that all in the hearing of this word will trust in Him to the saving of their souls. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
[Congregational hymn: O Come, All Ye Faithful]