The Gospel of Matthew begins with Jesus’ genealogy. Why does Matthew begin his story of Jesus with this family tree? We can learn a lot about who Jesus is and what he came to do by paying attention to this introduction. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on December 13, 2020.
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year. . . . It’s the hap-happiest season of all.” Or the song says. Are you feeling it this year? Does it feel wonderful and hap-happy?
When I was a child, I felt the thrill of “the Christmas spirit,” whatever that is. I used to love lights and music and Christmas movies and TV specials and special food and gifts. Especially the gifts. But as I get older, I find those things to feel a lot less special.
Yesterday, I saw a picture that someone posted online. It was of a dumpster that said “EMPTY WHEN FULL.” The joke, of course, was how can a dumpster simultaneously be empty and full? But perhaps that’s the way some of us feel at Christmas. We’re full of food, our lives are full of stuff, our schedules may be full, and our relatives may be full of it, but we feel empty.
For some people, the holidays remind them of what they’ve lost in the past year. The other day, I was writing Christmas cards to people. Two were to people who were now celebrating their first Christmas after the death of a spouse. Another was to someone who lost a spouse the previous year. One was to a couple that lost a child this year. The holidays can highlight what we have, but they can also highlight what we’ve lost.
Many people try to cover up that emptiness and loss. The message of secular Christmas celebrations is, “Be happy.” If you don’t feel happy, the key is to celebrate more, to buy more things, to spend more time with family. The holiday takes on this strange empty meaning. It’s not really about anything other than celebrating celebration, feasting on festiveness, an attempt to buy pieces of peace. It’s about nostalgia and sentimentality and the many dozens of ways that the Hallmark and Lifetime Channels can make Christmas romance movies out of the same basic plot.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I still enjoy Christmas lights, and some Christmas music. I’m a sucker for Christmas decorations. I love getting presents. Occasionally, I enjoy spending time with family. It’s not that these things are bad. But I need more than that. I suspect that you do, too. If that’s all there is to Christmas, then it’s just the largest Hallmark holiday, a phony reason to celebrate for celebration’s sake.
Providentially, the real meaning of Christmas is not found in all those trappings. The meaning of Christmas is that God sent his ultimate servant to rescue us. This servant didn’t come to put a feel-good band aid of tinsel over our problems. He didn’t come to fill our emptiness with more food and drink and money. He came to heal us, which required getting to the root of our problems. God loves us so much that he didn’t send us a comedian or entertainer, a politician or a general, an economist or a get-rich-quick adviser. He didn’t manipulate our emotions. Instead, he gave us a Savior, his own Son.
Today, we’re going to learn about Jesus and what he has done for us by looking at passages from the book of Isaiah. We have been studying the Gospel of Luke, which is all about Jesus in a very direct way. But this month, we’re taking a look at some passages from a book about a prophet called Isaiah. God sent a message to his people through a man named Isaiah in the eighth century BC, roughly seven hundred years before Jesus was born. He gave them a message about who he is, what their problem was, and the hope that would come through one person, a special child, a descendant of King David. Over the last three weeks, we’ve looked at who God is, our problems of sin and idolatry, and prophesies about a coming king. This week, we’ll look at passages about a servant of God.
The first one is Isaiah 42:1–7:
1 Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law.
5 Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people on it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
6 “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,
7 to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
God promised Israel that he would send his servant into the world. The Holy Spirit—the third person of the triune God (Father, Son, and Spirit) would rest upon this servant, empowering him. Though the servant has power, he would be gentle, especially with people who were “bruised reeds,” people who were beat up and knew they needed help. To those people, he would bring comfort. Though he’s gentle, he is strong, and he will work until he brings justice to the whole Earth.
Then, we’re told that the God who has made the whole universe, who gives life and breath to everyone on the Earth, says this about his servant: God will give this servant to his people as a covenant, which is kind of like a contract that establishes a relationship between two parties. The way that God and his people will be related will be through this servant. He will gather the remnant of Israel, God’s people, to himself. He will be a light to all the nations—people from across the globe will come to God through him. The people who are living in darkness will see a great light (Isa. 9:2).
That is the first of four “servant songs” found in the book of Isaiah. The next one is in the beginning of chapter 49. Let’s turn there now. Here is Isaiah 49:1–6:
1 Listen to me, O coastlands,
and give attention, you peoples from afar.
The Lord called me from the womb,
from the body of my mother he named my name.
2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword;
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow;
in his quiver he hid me away.
3 And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
4 But I said, “I have labored in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my right is with the Lord,
and my recompense with my God.”
5 And now the Lord says,
he who formed me from the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him;
and that Israel might be gathered to him—
for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
6 he says:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Here, God’s servant is called from the womb of his mother. His words will be powerful: his mouth is like a sharp sword. He is called Israel. He is the one who will truly be God’s person. If you read the Old Testament, which is long and complicated, you’ll see that most of it is about a group of people, a nation, called Israel. And it doesn’t take much reading to see that these people are in many ways failures. They were supposed to live for God, worship him, represent him on Earth, and obey him. But they don’t worship God alone; they also worship false gods, which are called idols. They don’t obey God, living according to his commandments and laws. Instead, they often live like everyone else lives. They, like everyone else in the world, deserve condemnation, to be cut off from God forever.
But not this servant. He will be perfect. Yet at first his work will seem to be in vain. His work doesn’t always appear to have accomplished something great. But God said to this servant that he would bring his people back to God. He would be a light to the nations—this is the second time we’ve seen that. He would bring salvation to people throughout the world. That salvation is reconciliation with God. It’s a salvation from the condemnation that their sins have earned them. They will be saved from a broken relationship with God, from rebellion, and from all that comes with it, including death and condemnation. And this salvation will come through this servant.
The third song about this servant comes in the next chapter. Let’s look at chapter 50:4–11:
4 The Lord God has given me
the tongue of those who are taught,
that I may know how to sustain with a word
him who is weary.
Morning by morning he awakens;
he awakens my ear
to hear as those who are taught.
5 The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious;
I turned not backward.
6 I gave my back to those who strike,
and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;
I hid not my face
from disgrace and spitting.
7 But the Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like a flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame.
8 He who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who is my adversary?
Let him come near to me.
9 Behold, the Lord God helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment;
the moth will eat them up.
10 Who among you fears the Lord
and obeys the voice of his servant?
Let him who walks in darkness
and has no light
trust in the name of the Lord
and rely on his God.
11 Behold, all you who kindle a fire,
who equip yourselves with burning torches!
Walk by the light of your fire,
and by the torches that you have kindled!
This you have from my hand:a
you shall lie down in torment.
The servant says that God has given him wisdom, a tongue that will sustain those who are weary. Again, this man has powerful words, words that not only can cut like a sharp sword, but words that can also heal.
This servant has his ear open to God. He listens to God. He does what God tells him to do. He is not rebellious. He is even obedient in the face of persecution. People will strike him, pull his beard, and spit on him. But this servant didn’t run away from such rough treatment. Because God strengthens him, he is able to face that affliction square on, setting his face like flint toward it. He knows that God will not let him be put to shame. No one will be able to say that he’s guilty. He will be vindicated.
This servant calls all who are living in darkness to come to him in the light, to fear the Lord and to obey his servant. As I said last week, the fear of the Lord isn’t necessarily being afraid of him. Though, if you’re on the wrong side of God, you should be afraid. But the fear of the Lord is having a very healthy, awestruck respect for God. If you know who God truly is, you will fear him, respect him, honor him. And if you do those things, his servant says, you will obey the voice of his servant. You will come to him, the light of the nations, instead of living in darkness. But those who remain in darkness, who think that they can light their own way with their own torches, will lie down in torment. In other words, those who trust that they can cure themselves, who can fix their greatest problem, which is a broken relationship with God and rebellion against him, will not only remain in darkness, but they will be punished.
If we can’t bring ourselves back to God, and if our efforts to do so result only in torment, how can we ever get back to God? As we’ve already seen, the key is the servant of God. But how does this servant make us in the right with God? How does he fix this problem of a broken relationship?
To answer those questions, we must look at the fourth and final song of the servant. This one begins at the end of chapter 52 and runs through all of chapter 53. Let’s first read Isaiah 52:13–15:
13 Behold, my servant shall act wisely;
he shall be high and lifted up,
and shall be exalted.
14 As many were astonished at you—
his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—
15 so shall he sprinkle many nations.
Kings shall shut their mouths because of him,
for that which has not been told them they see,
and that which they have not heard they understand.
We’re told that God’s servant will be exalted. He will be high and lifted up. Yet though he’s exalted, his appearance will be marred. We must remember that this servant will be struck and beaten. He will be battered. But he will “sprinkle many nations.” That means he will cleanse many people, washing them from what defiles them, which, according to the Bible, is sin. His work will be so great that even kings will be rendered speechless by what he will do.
Let’s now look at chapter 53. We’ll read the first three verses:
1 Who has believed what he has heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
This servant will grow up like a root out of a dry ground, which means that he will be greater than his historical circumstances. His background on Earth will be humble. He won’t look majestic. He won’t look exceptionally beautiful. He will look rather ordinary.
But there’s something more. He will be despised and rejected. He will be a man who knows sorrow and grief. People will hide their faces from him. They will betray him and reject him. And we’re told even this: we esteemed him not. If we saw him on Earth, we would probably reject him.
This servant has a strange combination of qualities. He’s powerful, given strength by the Holy Spirit. He is wise and his words are powerful. They are able to condemn and save. God will be with him and he will not be put to shame. He will be vindicated and declared righteous. Yet he will also suffer and be rejected.
We’re also told that his suffering does something. He doesn’t suffer in some meaningless, pointless way. Look at verses 4–6:
4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
This servant will bear our griefs, our sorrows, our iniquities, or sins. Though we thought he was rejected by God, condemned and afflicted, the reality was that he was being condemned in our place. His suffering—his being pierced and crushed—was for our sake. He was crushed for our sins, not for his own. The condemnation—the chastisement—that we deserve fell upon him so that we could have peace with God. His wounds heal us. We were like sheep, going astray, wandering from God. Each one of us was like that. But God does something amazing. He takes our sin and lays it on his servant, who suffers in our place.
The reason that we feel empty is that we were made to have a relationship with God. Because that relationship is broken, we have a God-shaped hole within us. We were made to love God and worship him and obey him. But instead of going to God to have that hole filled, we try to fill it up with other stuff, often with things that aren’t necessarily bad. But those things, even good things, weren’t made to fill that hole. So, we’re empty when full. We’re not full of God, but things he made, thinking that we can be satisfied by the gifts instead of the Giver. As Augustine wrote over sixteen hundred years ago: “You [God] stir men to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” He might have said our hearts are empty until they are filled by God. Until then, we’re a bunch of dumpsters.
Yet this servant is the one who was treated like trash. Look at verses 7–9:
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;|
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
9 And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
He was afflicted, beaten, led to die. But he didn’t protest. He didn’t try to escape this fate. He was like a sheep led to slaughter. He was cut off from the land of the living, paying for the sins of God’s people. He died among wicked people, and his body was laid in the tomb of a rich man, even though he never did anything wrong. He never did violence to other people. He never said anything deceitful. He only told the truth. He was never selfish. He only loved God and other people. Yet he still was treated like garbage.
But this wasn’t an accident, or just the result of the works of evil people. Look at verses 10–12:
10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.
This servant suffered because it was God’s will. It was God’s plan. His suffering was an offering for our guilt.
But there’s good news. Even though this servant is crushed and afflicted, led to slaughter, killed and laid in a grave, he will see his days prolonged. He will see his offspring. He will be satisfied. This servant, though he is killed, will live. He will make many to be accounted righteous. He will take away their sin and make them in the right with God. He will also live to intercede for sinners, to go between God and them, to lift them up in prayers to God.
Of course, these servant songs are all about Jesus. He alone is the One sent by God to be a light to the world. He alone is perfectly righteous and perfectly wise. He alone was sent to bear the sins of his people.
Jesus is not just a servant. He is the Son of God. He, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, are the triune God. But he was sent by the Father to become a human being in a “dry ground,” in humble circumstances. Though he was and is all-powerful, he looked like an ordinary human being. He was conceived in a miraculous way—by a virgin—but otherwise, his background was rather ordinary. He was a carpenter’s son. He grew up in a small town, away from the capital city. He didn’t act like the rulers of the Earth, trying to appear powerful, using their power to their own advantage. He was humble.
He lived the perfect life. He was never rebellious toward God the Father. He perfectly loved, honored, and obeyed God. Yet he was rejected by the very people who should have known who he is. He was mocked, rejected, betrayed, arrested, tortured, and killed. This was because people are evil, and they did an evil thing to him. But ultimately, it was God’s plan to have him killed. And it was Jesus’ plan; he laid down his life voluntarily. He did this to take away our sin. Strangely, his death is his victory and exaltation. How is Jesus “high and lifted up”? On the cross!
Not only did Jesus die, but he rose from the grave in a body that can never die again. His resurrection showed that he has power over sin and death, that his sacrifice paid the penalty for sin in full, and that his people, though they will die in this life, will be resurrected to eternal life. He lives to see people come to faith in him, and he intercedes for those people. He prays for them. He is their advocate.
This is the message of Christmas. God sent his Son into the world to save his people from their sin, to make atonement for their sin, to receive the penalty they deserve.
This message is hard to receive. A lot of people don’t like it. They don’t like it because it says that we are bad, that we have done wrong, that we deserve condemnation, and that we can’t fix ourselves. But that’s the truth. Evil isn’t just something that’s “out there.” It’s within us, and we can’t remove it from ourselves. As the Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) once observed, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
But Jesus came to take away our sin and our guilt. He came to be destroyed in our place. He also came to give us new hearts, to give us the Holy Spirit, who gives us the strength to live the way that we should, to cause us to love God and obey him.
But notice that in that last song, the servant only takes away the sins of God’s people. He bore the sin of many—not all. He causes many—not all—to be accounted righteous. Not everyone benefits from the work of Jesus.
How do we have become part of God’s people, so that our sins are removed from us and we are put int the right with God? We need to see that our own torches can’t remove our darkness. Our own attempts to feel good will fail, often because they are only superficial. Only Jesus can get to the root of our problems and dig them out.
Recently, I had surgery to repair a hernia. The hernia itself wasn’t as bad as it could be. I couldn’t see a visible bulge. I wasn’t bent over in pain. But it was uncomfortable, and the fact is that once a hernia starts, it doesn’t get better on its own. If left alone, it would get worse. In rare cases, it could be life-threatening, though mine wasn’t.
I recognized that I had a problem that I couldn’t fix. So, I found a doctor who could fix me. I actually saw a couple of doctors who didn’t accurately diagnose the problem. But my surgeon did, he told me he could fix it, and I said I wanted that. So, on December 12 I went to the hospital and had the surgery.
Having surgery is a strange thing. You are yielding control of your body to others. They tell you to take off all your clothes and put them in a bag. They give you a little apron to wear and little socks. You lie on a bed, and they put an IV in you. And you wait. Then, when it’s your time, they wheel you around on that bed and bring you to the operating room.
It’s so strange to be wheeled around in a bed. Usually, when we get in bed, the bed stays where it is. So, it’s odd to lie in a bed that’s moving. And it’s odd to be pushed around, at least when you don’t normally have that done for you. I could have walked to the operating room, but I wasn’t in control. I realized I couldn’t fix myself. I had to give control over to those who could fix me.
Then, they knock you out and the surgeon does his work. I didn’t fully understand the surgery, but I didn’t need to. I only had to trust that the surgeon could fix me. I had to have faith in his understanding and skill, not in my own.
After surgery, things felt worse. I’ve improved and I will continue to heal, but the healing doesn’t come immediately. Sometimes, in order to be made well, we have to feel worse for a while.
And all of this is a lot like salvation. If we understand that we have a problem we can’t fix, and that Jesus alone is the Great Physician who can fix us, we put our trust in him. We yield control of our lives to him. And it might feel like weakness. But what it is is simply facing reality. We are not in control. We can’t fix ourselves.
We don’t need to know everything about Jesus in order to be fixed. We don’t need to know everything about how that salvation works. We simply need to put our trust in Jesus. And when he fixes us, it may feel worse at first. Or, it may feel like instant relief, or perhaps a little bit of both. But Jesus promises to be with us as we heal, and he gives us the Spirit to strengthen us.
Jesus’ work isn’t finished. Justice has not been established across the whole Earth. But he makes us right with God if we come to him in faith. If we do that, we will listen to the servant of God’s voice and obey him. And if we do that, we will find our lives changed.
I urge us all to put our trust in Jesus. Only he can make us right with God. Only he can remove the cancer of sin, taking away our shame and guilt. Only he can give us eternal life. Everything else that we try to make us right is just a band aid. Jesus gets to the root of our problem. Let’s turn to him this Christmas.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3. ↑
- Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007), 75. ↑
Two weeks ago, I told one story of being in Louisville. Here’s another short one. In August 2018, I was in Louisville, taking classes. While there, I met up with a friend who used to be an associate pastor of a church in this area. He picked me up and we drove to dinner. As he was driving, I noticed something odd. We were passing a small pubic space, a little park space in the middle of a rotary that featured a statue of a man on a horse. The statue had some bright orange paint on it. It wasn’t painted entirely orange. That would be odd. But, no, it looked like the statue was hit with a balloon filled with bright orange paint. The paint had splattered on the statue and then dribbled down the statue.
Though I didn’t know who the subject of that monument was, I recognized what had happened. The statue was probably of someone who had served the Confederate Army in the Civil War. Louisville is sort of the gateway between the South and the Midwest, but it’s still on the southern end of the Mason-Dixon line. It has a southern heritage. And someone had dared recognize a man who had once been on the wrong side of the slavery issue. So, someone had recently decided to vandalize that monument.
It turns out that the statue was of a man named John Castleman, who helped found Louisville’s park system. He had also fought for the Confederate Army. He was recognized for his contributions to the city, but now people have decided that someone like that shouldn’t be honored, because his legacy is tarnished. His support of slavery stains his character more than bright orange paint. At least that’s what some people think.
Similar things have happened throughout our country. There has been a debate about whether we should continue to honor people who had once done wrong things or supported wrong causes. Do we continue to have statues and plaques and other monuments that honor such people? Or should those remembrances of things past be removed?
I understand why people are uncomfortable with honoring people who once supported slavery. The statues don’t exist to honor their contributions to slavery, per se. Still, they supported and even fought for that institution, and that makes us uncomfortable, because we know that slavery is a grave evil, and the institution of slavery in this country is one of the nation’s great sins.
Yet when this debate about monuments is held, I think about this: If we were to remove every statue of every person who ever did something wrong, which statues would remain? It’s not hard to point out the errors, the flaws, and faults in people, especially those of different eras.
Think of Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer. He was a Catholic priest, monk, and professor who saw that what the Catholic Church practiced was contrary to what is in the Bible. He was a brave man who was willing to act, to call out this problem. He dared to translate the Bible into a language that the people of Germany could understand, which encouraged others to translate the Bible into the vernacular. (This was at a time when the official Bible of the Catholic Church was in Latin.) He was willing to die for the truth of the Bible. It’s possible that we wouldn’t be in this kind of church were it not for Luther. We owe him a debt of gratitude.
But Martin Luther wasn’t perfect. He was known for his colorful language, often insulting people in memorable ways. There’s a website called the “Lutheran Insulter.” You can visit the website and be insulted by Luther’s own words, which are carefully cited. If you want to read another insult, you click “Insult me again.” We might laugh or blush at some of his language. But Luther also wrote some things about Jewish people who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, their King and Redeemer, and we would generally view the language he used as anti-Semitic. It’s true that Jewish people who do not believe in Jesus are not God’s people. They are separated from God by their sin. But the same is true of everyone who does not believe in Jesus. But Luther singled out Jewish people and his writings about them make us uncomfortable. And this brings up an awkward tension. Do we honor Luther for his positive contributions? Do we renounce his anti-Semitism? Do we do both?
And what of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was named after Luther? The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is regarded as a great hero of the twentieth century. He spoke out against racism. He advocated a non-violent approach to fighting against that evil. He frequently appealed to the Bible. He spoke and wrote eloquently. We should all be thankful for his work. He is honored in many ways today. Most major cities have a street named after him. There’s a federal holiday named after him.
But was Luther perfect? Not at all. He received a PhD in systematic theology from Boston University. Many years after his death, when his papers were being collected and organized, it was noticed that significant portions of that dissertation were plagiarized. More importantly, King rejected major doctrines of the Christian faith. In papers he wrote at seminary, he doubted the doctrines of the Trinity, the resurrection of Jesus, salvation by substitution, and the second coming of Jesus. He said such doctrines were “contrary to science.” There is no evidence that he refuted those earlier positions. To reject the Trinity and the resurrection and salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus is to reject Christianity. You can’t be a Christian and believe they are simply myths. Additionally, there is evidence that King was a serial adulterer. How do we view this Luther? Do we continue to honor his positive contributions even while lamenting all his moral failures?
And it’s not just MLK. A couple of months ago, NPR had a story about Mahatma Gandhi, perhaps the most famous Indian who has ever lived. The story said that Martin Luther King Jr. visited the former home of Gandhi, in Mumbai. This was in 1959, eleven years after Gandhi was killed. King wanted to spend the night in Gandhi’s old bedroom because he could feel “vibrations of Gandhi.” (That, by the way, is something that a Christian wouldn’t say.) The article noted that this is the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. Such anniversaries invite closer scrutiny of past leaders. The story noted that a statue of Gandhi was removed from a university in Ghana last year, because he had once written some racist things, saying that white people in South Africa should be the predominant race, and writing some troubling things about black people. So, at least earlier in his life, Gandhi had held some racist ideas.
We could continue to scrutinize famous people of the past, digging up dirt on their lives. Even the greatest human beings have been significantly flawed. Their reputations are stained by sin, by racist ideas, by personal moral failings. If we were to remove every statue of every sinner, there would be no statues left. Well, there would be statues of only one man, the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. Part of the reason why we celebrate Jesus’ birth at Christmas is because he was the only man who never failed.
This month, we’re looking at passages from the book of Isaiah that explain Christmas, as well as the whole story of the Bible. In the first week, we looked at passages that show a big view of God. As the only true God and the Creator of the universe, there is no one like him. He transcends what we can understand completely. He is big, and we are small in comparison. Last week, we talked about the great problem that we all have: We are separated by God because of our sin. Instead of worshiping the one true God alone, and instead of living life on his terms, we worship other things, things that dictate how we live. We call those things, those false gods, idols. We are, all of us, failures, deeply flawed, stained by sin. If there statues of us, they deserve to be torn down.
If the story ended there, it would be bad news, because God cannot put up with such failure forever. Sin is rebellion against God. It is corrosive. It destroys his good creation. God would be right to punish and eliminate all sinners. But God is also merciful and gracious. He is patient. And God had a plan to provide the perfect human, the only one who has never sinned.
This morning, we’re going to spend our time primarily looking at two passages from the book of Isaiah, a book that was written over twenty-seven hundred years ago, about seven hundred years before Jesus was born. Both of these passages express the hope that a son would be born who would come and make all things right.
The first passage is Isaiah 9:1–7. Before I read this passage, it’s important to know a little bit of history. Isaiah was a prophet in Israel, in Jerusalem, at a time of unrest. The northern kingdom of Israel had separated from the southern kingdom, called Judah, about two hundred years earlier. In Isaiah’s day, the super-power of the world was Assyria, and they threatened Israel. Also, the northern kingdom of Israel had partnered with Syria and they threatened Judah. In this midst of these foreign threats, the people of Judah needed hope that God would one day take care of their enemies, that he would cause his light to shine on people who were living in darkness. And Isaiah promises just that.
Here is Isaiah 9:1–7:
1 But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
2 The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
3 You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
4 For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
This passage begins by talking about gloom and anguish. Specifically, two places are mentioned: Zebulun and Naphtali. These were tribes of Israel, both of which were to the west of the sea of Galilee. These were areas that first fell to the invading Assyrian empire. They knew what it was like to be in anguish and gloom, as a foreign army overtook them. The people of the land were deported. Their land was divided into three Assyrian provinces. It was overrun by Gentiles, people who weren’t part of Israel.
The basic idea here is that these lands that were once conquered will experience glory. The people who once lived in darkness will see a great light. The nation that was once beaten down and in despair will one day be filled with joy. The nation that was spoiled will one day divide the spoils of war. They will have victory over their enemies. They were once under the yoke of their foreign oppressors, but soon they will be delivered. God will break that yoke, as well as the rod of oppression. All the garments and equipment associated with war will be burned up, destroyed. Earlier in Isaiah, we’re told that there will be a day when the weapons of war—swords and spears—will be turned into tool used to farm—plows and pruning hooks (Isa. 2:4). There will be an end to war.
The key to this victory, to this light and joy and peace, is found in verse 6. A child will be born. Specifically, a son will be born. The government will rest upon him. God’s kingdom will be ruled by him. And this special child, this son, will be called four names. The first is Wonderful Counselor, which refers to the wonderful, or supernatural, counsel that he will give. Unlike all of Israel’s previous kings, this king will make perfect decisions because he is perfectly wise. He will never hold false views and give wrong advice.
He will also be called Mighty God. Now, it’s possible that the Hebrew phrase behind that name could be translated as something like “Mighty One of God” or “Warrior of God.” But in the very next chapter of Isaiah, the one true God is called “mighty God” (Isa. 10:21). It’s likely that Isaiah’s original audience thought that this son would represent God, but not actually be God. That’s because they couldn’t imagine that God would become a human being. That seemed impossible. Yet that is what Isaiah prophesied. Somehow, the child who will be born will also be God.
He is also called Everlasting Father. This does not mean that God the Father would become a child. We believe that God is one being in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. While they are perfectly united, it’s important not to get these three persons confused. The word “father” can be used in nonliteral ways, the way that Catholics will refer to a priest as “Father.” Obviously, he’s not their biological father, nor is he God the Father, but he is viewed as a kind of leader, provider, and protector. And that’s more or less how “Father” is used here. He will care for his family. He will lead them. He will provide for them. He will protect them. Unlike all the other kings of Israel, who not only lacked perfect wisdom and often weren’t mighty or godly, this “Father” will be everlasting. His reign will have no end.
Finally, he will be called Prince of Peace. Perhaps the people of Isaiah’s day were hoping only for political peace. That’s what so many people want. Or, they want peace with family members, and perhaps some kind of economic victory. More often, we want these things plus a sense of internal peace, a peace in our souls. But that peace won’t come unless we have peace with God. And that is ultimately what Isaiah is talking about. This child, this son, will bring real, lasting peace, peace with God, to his people.
Verse 7 make explicit some things I’ve already said. This child’s reign and the peace that comes with it will know no end. He will reign on David’s throne forever. David was the great king of Israel. But David was flawed. He had many wives, though God made marriage to be something that unites one man and one woman. Though David had multiple wives, he wanted more. He saw another man’s wife, Bathsheba, and wanted her because she was beautiful. So, he took her. And she became pregnant. To cover up what he had done, David had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, killed. David certainly had his own sins. But this descendant of David would not be like David. He would reign perfectly. He would be perfectly righteous, always doing what was right. He would make sure that justice was always done. There would be no corruption in his administration. And God would make all of this come to pass: “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.”
In short, Isaiah is promising victory for those who were defeated. He is promising peace and joy to those who were apart from God and despairing. He promised light to those who were in darkness. All of this would come through this special son, who would not only be a descendant of David, but also Mighty God himself. Because he is God, he will reign forever.
This promise that God made through Isaiah would probably have seemed a little hard to believe twenty-seven hundred years ago, when Israel was divided and partially defeated. And it’s hard to believe now, that there would be a perfect leader, particularly when we consider that even the greatest of men have their sins. But that is what God promised.
The promise continues in Isaiah 11. Look at Isaiah 11:1–5:
1 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
2 And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
and faithfulness the belt of his loins.
This prophecy of Isaiah is about the same child. He would come from the “root” of Jesse, who was king David’s father. And from this root would come good fruit. That’s because the Holy Spirit would rest upon him, and the Holy Spirit would give this king wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and a fear of the Lord. When we talk of “fear of the Lord,” we don’t necessarily mean being afraid of God. It’s more like having a healthy respect for God. Unlike the kings that came before this king, this king would be perfectly wise, perfect in his understanding and knowledge. Wisdom, the knowledge of how to live rightly, comes from the fear of the Lord (Prov. 9:10). This king would be a good king because he would live for God. This king would take care of the poor. He would defeat the wicked. He would always do what is right.
If you take a look at all our political leaders, such a leader sounds too good to be true. Imagine if we were told we would have a president who would be like this. We couldn’t imagine that happening. All our presidents seem foolish or proud or conceited or wicked. They lack true fear of the Lord. But not this leader.
We’re also told in Isaiah 11 that this leader would bring about real, lasting peace. Look at verses 6–10:
6 The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
9 They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
10 In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.
Some of that language is a poetic way of imagining real peace. Imagine a wolf living peacefully with a lamb instead of wanting to devour it. Who could imagine a young child leading dangerous and wild animals? Who could imagine an infant or a toddler laying safely near snakes?
Yet God promised that this king, who comes from Jesse’s lineage, would bring about such peace. This king will put an end to destruction and harm. In fact, he will cause the whole Earth to be full of the knowledge of God. People from all the nations of the Earth will come to him.
These passages sound too good to be true. But they are true, and they are about Jesus. He is the offspring of David who will reign forever. He is the only one who is perfectly wise, perfectly righteous, perfectly just. He is the only one who has perfectly worshiped and honored God the Father. And one day he will bring about perfect peace on Earth.
We know these passages are about Jesus because only he could fulfill them. Also, Matthew, who wrote a biography of Jesus, quotes the beginning of Isaiah 9, saying that Jesus fulfilled that passage by visiting the territories of Zebulun and Naphtali (Matt. 4:13–16). Only Jesus is both a son who was born and also Mighty God. He is the only perfect leader, the only perfect man, the only perfect human being who has ever lived.
At Christmas, we celebrate his birth because it is a miracle. The eternal Son of God, who has always existed, became a human being. God is not like us in some important ways. God is eternal. We have a beginning. God doesn’t have a body; he is spirit. We have bodies. God is omnipresent. We are limited to one space, as well as one time. God is perfect. We are not. How can God become a human being and still remain God? It’s hard to understand, but this is by no means impossible. We know it’s not impossible because it happened. Jesus is God the Son, and he added a second nature to himself. He is one person with two natures, one divine and the other human. He was and is truly human. He has a body. He was born. He ate and drank. He became tired and slept. He had a full range of human emotions. He felt pain. He suffered. He died. Jesus is truly God but he’s also truly human.
Part of the reason why Jesus came is because every other human failed to live as they should. We may not have written racist statements or committed adultery or murder, but we have all failed to love God and live for him. We have failed to keep God’s moral code. If we’re being honest, we have to admit that we’ve failed to keep our own moral codes. But Jesus has never failed. He’s not selfish. He can’t be bought or sold.
And not only has he always done what is right, but he’s always held the right ideas. He’s not racist. He hasn’t advocated for the oppression of innocent human beings. His theology is perfect.
And he’s perfectly wise. He’s clever. He knows the right thing to say. Even in the midst of persecution and pressure, he always said and did what was right.
You can’t see all of that by reading these two passages in Isaiah, but if you look to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, you can see that. We have been studying Luke’s Gospel, and we’ll finish it next year. You can learn more about Jesus by reading those Gospels. We have almost all of the sermons on Luke available online. If you don’t know Jesus yet, I urge you to read about him. Read his words. Consider his life. Only he is perfect.
The reason why he needed to be perfect was because God wants and even demands a perfect human being to covenant with him. In the end, God can only dwell with those who aren’t corrupted by sin. Jesus lived a perfect human life in order to fulfill God’s righteous demands.
But Jesus also came to die. I’ll talk more about this next week, when we talk about how God saves his people. But for now, it will suffice to say that Jesus came to pay the penalty that we deserve. Though he was and is perfect, he was treated like the worst criminal. If we’re to think about statues, it’s like this: Jesus let his statue be destroyed so that statues of corrupted men and women wouldn’t e torn down. That’s metaphorical, of course. The fact is that we deserve to be torn down, condemned by God, removed from his good creation. Jesus didn’t deserve that. But he came to take that penalty for us. And he also came to give us his righteousness.
But what of all the talk of Jesus reigning forever and defeating enemies? The truth is that Jesus didn’t come to do all of that, at least not when he first came to Earth. But the promise is that though he returned to heaven, he will come again to bring about perfect peace on Earth. All who trust in Jesus, who willingly come under his rule, who properly fear him, who believe that he is the only one who can make us and the world right with God, will live with God forever in a perfect world. All who reject Jesus will be judged and condemned. They will be cast out and remain in darkness forever. When this happens, the world will be recreated. There will be no more hurt or destruction in God’s creation. The wolf shall lie down with the lamb. The knowledge and glory of God will cover that new Earth the way the waters cover the sea.
The only way to have that promised peace, to have a place in that perfect world, is to trust in Jesus. Every other leader who has ever come and gone is flawed and failed. We’re all a mixed bag of good and evil. But not Jesus. He is the only one who never failed. Receive this gift that God offers by putting your trust in him.
- https://ergofabulous.org/luther. ↑
- After several clicks, my favorite is: “You should not write a book before you have heard an old sow fart; and then you should open your jaws with awe, saying, ‘Thank you, lovely nightingale, that is just the text for me!’” From “Against Hanswurst,” pg. 250 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 41. ↑
- Joe Carter, “9 Things You Should Know about Martin Luther King, Jr.” The Gospel Coalition, January 19, 2014, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/9-things-you-should-know-about-martin-luther-king-jr-2. ↑
- Joshua Horn, “Was Martin Luther King Jr. a Christian?” Discerning History, April 17, 2018, http://discerninghistory.com/2018/04/was-martin-luther-king-jr-a-christian. ↑
- Lauren Frayer, “Gandhi Is Deeply Revered, But His Attitudes on Race and Sex Are Under Scrutiny,” National Public Radio, October 2, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/10/02/766083651/gandhi-is-deeply-revered-but-his-attitudes-on-race-and-sex-are-under-scrutiny. ↑
- See the sermons on Luke available at https://wbcommunity.org/luke. ↑
Jesus’ opponents ask him a “gotcha” question, intended to show that he is wrong. Jesus answers their question by showing that they do not understand what Jesus believes, neither do they know the Bible and the God of the Bible. Then, he asks a question of his own that they cannot answer. Find out why God is the God of the living, who Jesus is, and the hope of eternal, resurrected life that we have in him. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon, on Luke 20:27-44, on November 3, 2019.
Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and he asks his followers to deny themselves and take up their cross daily. This is the heart of true Christianity. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon, based on Luke 9:18-27, on February 3, 2019.
The first episode of Jesus’ public ministry that we find in Luke’s Gospel is an account of him teaching in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth. Jesus’ message ultimately produces a hostile reaction. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 4:14-30.
Do you know what a “bucket list” is? A “bucket list” is a list of things to do before you kick the bucket. According to one website, here are the top ten bucket list ideas:
1. See the Northern Lights.
3. Get a tattoo.
4. Swim with dolphins.
5. Go on a cruise.
6. Get married.
7. Run a marathon.
8. Go zip-lining.
9. Go scuba diving.
10. Ride an elephant.
I looked at a few similar lists and there’s a lot of overlap on these lists. Most of top bucket list items involve travel, seeing something unique, and achieving something significant. So, other bucket list items might involve traveling to all fifty states or all seven continents, seeing the Great Wall of China, and writing a book.
What’s on your bucket list? What do you want to see or do before you die?
Today, we’ll look at how two older Jewish people reacted to the baby Jesus. It seems they both had a very short bucket list, a list that had only one item: See the Messiah. They wanted to see God’s anointed one, the one who would redeem God’s people, who would bring the promised “consolation of Israel.”
This morning, we’ll be reading Luke 2:22–40. Before we start reading, I’ll briefly remind us of what we’ve seen so far in Luke’s Gospel. Luke begins by explaining how this book is a work of history. He wrote of the amazing things that God had done through Jesus, and his history was written on the basis of eyewitness testimony. The first chapter of Luke showed us how the angel Gabriel promised that two special children would be born. First, John the Baptist would come. He would urge Israelites to turn back to God and he would prepare the way for the second child. The second child is Jesus, who was conceived in a virgin’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit. He was the anointed one, the one who would inherit the throne of David, the one who would rule forever, the “Son of the Most High.”
The second chapter of Luke begins with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem because the Roman emperor, Augustus, had decreed that a census should be taken. The census required that Jews travel to their ancestral homeland. Joseph was from the tribe of Judah and the line of David, who was from Bethlehem. So, Joseph and Mary traveled to the “city of David.” Jesus was born there amid animals, in a very humble and perhaps quite filthy environment. This is not the way you would expect such a special child to be born, but it shows that God comes to us in our filth.
After Jesus is born, angels appear to some shepherds and tell them the good news that the Savior, the Lord, the Christ is born. They announce that there is peace on earth among those with whom God is pleased. The shepherds race to discover that indeed the Christ is born. They glorified and praised God for all that they had seen.
In today’s passage, we find out what happens when Joseph and Mary bring their child to the temple in Jerusalem. They bring Jesus there to fulfill the law that God gave to Israel. When they do, two older Israelites are overjoyed.
Let’s first read verses 22–24:
22 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 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”
Why do Joseph and Mary bring Jesus to the temple? They brought him there to fulfill two things written in the law of the Old Testament. One is the purification that must occur after a woman gives birth. The book of Leviticus says that after a woman gives birth to a male child, she is unclean for seven days. Then, the child should be circumcised on the eighth day, which is when Jesus was circumcised (Luke 2:21). Then, for the next thirty-three days, the woman shall not touch anything holy or enter the temple. At the end of this time of purification, she shall bring a sacrifice: a lamb for a burnt offering and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. If she couldn’t afford a lamb, she should offer two pigeons or two turtledoves (Lev. 12:1–8). The law says, “And the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean” (Lev. 12:8).
To our ears, all of that sounds very strange. Why would a woman be ceremonially unclean after childbirth? Isn’t giving birth a good thing? Well, we can’t understand this idea without having some concept of the holiness of God. According to the Bible, God is holy. That means he is transcendent and pure. The presence of sin in the world taints us, however, and makes us unholy. If there were no sin in the world, there would be no blood shed. In fact, one of the consequences of sin is that childbirth would become painful (Gen. 3:16). If sin, which is a rebellion against God, never existed, life would be different. According to the law that God gave Israel, Israelites could offer sacrifices to atone for sin. In the book of Leviticus, other things that might not seem inherently sinful, like mold and mildew, could render something unholy. The idea is that the negative things in the world are the result of sin, and the holiness code of Leviticus taught the Israelites that if they were to approach God, they needed to become pure.
The second part of the law that Joseph and Mary fulfilled concerned the firstborn child. The firstborn Israelites belonged to the Lord. They were God’s and they needed to be bought back, or redeemed. This idea goes back to the exodus, when God brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. To free the Israelites, God sent ten plagues on Egypt. The tenth plague was the death of all the firstborn in the land of Egypt. The only way that anyone could avoid this fate was to sacrifice a lamb and place the blood of the lamb on the door frame and lintel. Since God allowed the firstborn Israelites to be spared, they belonged to him (Exod. 13:2, 12–15). Later, the law required a redemption price of five shekels, which was equivalent to about six months of wages (Num. 18:16).
I don’t want to get bogged down in the details of these Old Testament laws. The point is that Joseph and Mary were obedient to God. They followed his law. The fact that they sacrificed two birds shows that they were not wealthy. When the present Jesus to the Lord, there’s no mention of their paying a redemption price. Perhaps they simply offered Jesus to God without paying the redemption price. The idea would be that Jesus is God’s, dedicated to his service. They might have been saying, “He is yours, not ours.”
Beyond these details, it’s interesting that Luke mentions Jerusalem, the temple, and the law. We already saw one scene at the temple, when Zechariah offered incense in the temple and the angel Gabriel appeared to him. Throughout both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, the temple will play an important role. Of course, the temple was the center of Judaism. It was where God was worshiped, where God’s special presence dwelled, and where various sacrifices were offered. But Jesus came to replace the temple. He is the true temple, the dwelling place of God. He is Immanuel, “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). He is the true sacrifice; in fact, he is the true High Priest. He’s also the “place” of worship for Christians. We don’t have to go to a particular building or city to worship God. We can meet God if we are united to Jesus.
Luke also emphasizes the law. Five times in this passage we’re told that Joseph and Mary did things according to the law (Luke 2:22, 23, 24, 26, 39). We saw last week that the law of Caesar Augustus brought them from Nazareth to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1–7). But it is the law of the Lord that brings them to Jerusalem, and there is no doubt that the law of the Lord is greater than the law of any human ruler.
The fact that Joseph and Mary observed God’s law shows that they were faithful Israelites. But it also has a greater theological significance. According to the apostle Paul, “[W]hen the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4–5). Jesus came to obey the law perfectly, which is something that no other Israelite did, something that no other human could do or did do. And he came to do away with the law. That doesn’t mean that he came to put an end to morality, or moral principles. But the particular set of laws that God gave to Israel wasn’t intended to be permanent. It revealed their sin, it taught them important principles, and it prepared them for the coming of the Messiah.
The law is superseded by the Holy Spirit. It’s no surprise that Luke would emphasize the law and the Holy Spirit in the same passage. The age of the law was passing away, and the age of the Holy Spirit was arriving. We see this in the next several verses. Let’s read about a man named Simeon. I’ll read verses 25–32:
25 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. 26 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. 27 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, 28 he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,
29 “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation
31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
I want to explore three things in this passage. One concerns who Simeon is. We’re told he was “righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel.” We’re also told the Holy Spirit was on him, the Holy Spirit told him he wouldn’t die before seeing the Messiah, and that the Holy Spirit led him to the temple to see Jesus. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the triune God, and he is very active in Luke’s Gospel and in Acts. We’re not told how old Simeon is, but we get the sense that he was advanced in years. It seems like he had been waiting for years.
The second thing I want to point out what Simeon was waiting for. He was waiting to see the “consolation of Israel.” The Greek word translated as “consolation” is παράκλησις (paraklēsis). It’s sometimes translated as “comfort,” and that reminds us of passages in the Old Testament that promised God would bring comfort to Israel. The most famous is Isaiah 40:1: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” Another passage is Isaiah 49:13:
Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people
and will have compassion on his afflicted.
That Greek word is also related to the word παράκλητος (paraklētos), which Jesus uses to describe the Holy Spirit. The word is often translated as “Helper” or “Comforter” (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). God will bring comfort and consolation to Israel by means of the Holy Spirit. And Simeon knew that the day of consolation had arrived. The Messiah, anointed by God’s Holy Spirit, had come to redeem his people.
The third thing I want to point out is what Simeon said. When Simeon sees Jesus, he takes the baby in his arms, and he sings the fourth hymn that we find in the first two chapters of Luke. It is known as Nunc Dimittis, which is a Latin translation of the first two Greek words, “now dismiss.” Simeon tells God that he can now depart in peace, for he has seen the salvation of God. He knows that Jesus is the Savior, the one who will bring peace between God and his people. And this salvation is not just for ethnic Israel only. It is for all people, both Jews and Gentiles. The idea of a “light to the nations,” or a “light to the Gentiles,” also comes from the book of Isaiah (42:6; 49:6; 60:3). It had always been God’s plan to save Gentiles through his Messiah.
Before we move on, we should wonder that an old man would have spent so much time waiting to see a baby. We should wonder that this man, after seeing this baby, said that he could now “depart,” which might be a euphemism for death. He is saying to God, “I can now die. I have seen what I wanted to see.” Some people want to see other countries or famous landmarks before they die. I bet there were some people in Red Sox Nation who said, before 2004, “God, just let me live long enough to see the Sox win the World Series.” They hadn’t won it all in a lifetime (from 1918 to 2004). But World Series don’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things. And as great as it is to travel, to see unique sites, traveling doesn’t take care of our biggest needs. Traveling can’t promise eternal life. Various achievements, like running a marathon or writing a book, can’t make us right with God or give our souls rest.
But what Simeon saw was indeed the greatest thing anyone could see. He saw God in the flesh. Jesus is not just the Messiah, but he is the Son of God. That means he is divine. He is and has always been God the Son. And when he was conceived, he added a second nature. He was and is truly God, but he also became—and still is!—truly human. He came to fulfill the law for us and he came to pay the penalty for our sin for us. He came as the true sacrifice for sin. Simeon saw this, and he knew that his life was complete.
This is the hope of Israel. It is what faithful Israelites waited centuries to see. And it is the hope of all the nations. Simeon’s words echo another passage in Isaiah. This is what Isaiah 52:7–10 says:
7 How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
8 The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice;
together they sing for joy;
for eye to eye they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
9 Break forth together into singing,
you waste places of Jerusalem,
for the Lord has comforted his people;
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
10 The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
Simeon serves as a watchman, waiting for the salvation of Israel to come. And he sings of the good news that God has brought salvation to his people. He saw that the Lord had come to Zion, Jerusalem, to save. He knew that salvation would extend to people of all nations. He rejoiced and was glad.
Simeon’s words caused Joseph and Mary to marvel. But he wasn’t done. Let’s read verses 33–35:
33 And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 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 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
So far in Luke, the news of Jesus’ coming has been all joy. But now there’s an ominous tone. Simeon says that the child has been appointed for the fall and rising of man, that he will be opposed, that a sword will pierce Mary’s soul, and that the secret thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. Simeon says that Jesus will be a polarizing figure. Some people will receive him and others will oppose him. In the book of Isaiah, it says that God “will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken” (Isa. 8:14–15). And yet God says, also in Isaiah,
Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion,
a stone, a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation:
‘Whoever believes will not be in haste’ (Isa. 28:16).
In the New Testament, this language is applied to Jesus (Rom. 9:33; 1 Pet. 2:6–8; cf. Luke 20:17). The idea is that for some, Jesus is a stumbling stone. He is offensive. People trip over him and fall. But others will build their lives on Jesus. He will be their rock. And he is the cornerstone of the church.
Jesus himself said that he came not to bring peace, but to bring a sword (Matt. 10:34). That does not mean that Jesus was violent. What Jesus meant was that he will divide people. Some will trust him and others won’t. It was true two thousand years ago and it remains true today. Jesus knew that. Simeon knew that. But I doubt that Mary and Joseph knew that when Jesus was just a baby.
Jesus is divisive because he reveals our true condition. He said he is the light of the world (John 8:12). Light is a good thing. The light of the sun provides warmth. Without that light, there would be no photosynthesis. Without photosynthesis, there would be no plant life. Without plant life, there would be no animal life. We wouldn’t be here. But light also reveals the truth, and a lot of people don’t want the truth about the spiritual conditions revealed. Jesus said,
19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God (John 3:19–21).
Jesus reveals that we’re sinners. He told his own brothers, “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil” (John 7:7). That’s a verse that most churches won’t read. But Jesus said it, and he did tell us we’re sinners who need to turn from our sin and turn to God.
Simeon also told Mary that this child would cause “a sword [to] pierce through your own soul also.” I can’t imagine how Mary took this news. I wonder what she thought. How would her soul be pierced by a sword? What does that mean? It probably refers to the pain she would experience as Jesus’ mother. Sometime after this event, Joseph and Mary would take Jesus to Egypt to hide from King Herod. Luke doesn’t tell us about this, but Matthew does (Matt. 2). Herod the Great heard that the “King of Israel” had been born in Bethlehem. That was a threat to his own rule. So, he had the male infants in Bethlehem killed. An angel warned Joseph about this and he took his family to Egypt. Next week, we’ll see an event that caused Mary great distress (Luke 2:41–52). But the greatest distress must have been caused by Jesus’ death. Mary was there at the cross when Jesus was crucified. He was treated like the worst of criminals, an enemy of the state. And Mary had to witness her own son’s execution (John 19:25).
Jesus brings joy and comfort. But he also brings pain. In the end, that pain leads to greater joy for those who are united to Jesus. I’ll say more about that later.
But before I do that, let’s meet the other Jewish person who waited for the consolation of Israel. Let’s read verses 36–38:
36 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, 37 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. 38 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.
At the same time, there was an old woman named Anna who was a prophetess. We’re told that she had been married for seven years and then lived as a widow. The ESV says she was married until she was eighty-four, but the original Greek could be translated “and then as a widow for eighty-four years.” If she had married quite young, perhaps at age thirteen (not unheard of for Jewish woman of that era), she would be over one hundred at this time. Either way, she lived as a widow for a long time. She spent every waking hour at the temple complex, waiting for the redemption of Israel. We’re not told her actual words, but we are told that she was a prophetess, and that when she saw Jesus at the temple, she gave thanks to God and told everyone else who was waiting for the redemption of Israel. God has come in the flesh as a baby, a baby would grow up to be Israel’s Savior and King.
After offering sacrifices and dedicating Jesus to the Lord, we’re told that Joseph and Mary moved back to Nazareth in Galilee. Luke is probably compressing the events. It’s likely that after this, they returned to Bethlehem for some time, then went to Egypt in exile, and only later moved to Nazareth. At any rate, let’s finish today’s passage by reading verses 39 and 40:
39 And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.
We’ll talk more next week about how Jesus grew, became strong, and was filled with wisdom. But for now, I want us to think about a couple of things. One, let me return to that idea of a bucket list. What is on your bucket list? What do you want to see before you die? Could that something ever compare to seeing God in the flesh? Could that something ever compare to seeing God come to rescue his people? Jesus came to save his people. When he first came as a baby, he didn’t come to fix every problem in the world. But he came to fulfill God’s righteous demands, to obey God’s law where we have so often failed. And Jesus came to die to pay for the sins of all who will ever trust in him. Our bucket list items are so pathetic and trivial when compared to Jesus.
For those of us who know Jesus, let me ask this: What do you want to see God do before you die? Is there something you are waiting for God to do? Is there a way that you can work to make that a reality in your life?
Another way of asking this is to ask, why are you still alive? What does God want for you to do? God doesn’t just want us to live pleasant lives of comfort, to retire from work and just wait around. God has planned in advance good works for us to do (Eph. 2:10). Sometimes, we need to wait on God to do the impossible. But many times, we need to act. We should be faithful to do the things that God wants us to do, the things that are clearly stated in Scripture. Make those your bucket list items.
Those who are faithful wait on the Lord. And those who are faithful act on God’s word. Simeon and Anna were faithful. They waited. But they also acted. When the Spirit led Simeon, he went. Anna had been waiting at the temple. We might say she was actively waiting. And Simeon and Anna were blessed. The many decades of their lives had been a prelude to meeting Jesus. They were rewarded for their patience and their faithfulness.
Often in the Bible, we read of older people whose greatest moments came later in life. That was true for Abraham and Moses. It was certainly true for Simeon and Anna. You may be retired and in the last years of this life. But that doesn’t mean you’re finished doing God’s work. You may yet see God do amazing things in your life. We tend to think of our lives as winding down at the end. What if your six, seven, or eight decades of life have all been leading to something that is still ahead? What if the best is yet to come?
In fact, the best is yet to come. Even the old and the frail have hope that the best years aren’t behind, but ahead. Simeon and Anna saw Jesus in their latter years. Those who have put their trust in Christ will see their Redeemer. In their flesh, they will see God. But they won’t meet him as frail, weak, mortal beings. No, when Christians meet Jesus, they will see him with perfect eyes in glorious, immortal, resurrected bodies. They will live in a perfect world with him forever.
But for those of us who don’t know Jesus, or who perhaps are not quite committed to Jesus, I want to say something. Earlier, I said that Jesus is a polarizing figure. He produces division. People either embrace him or reject him. They will find him to be a stone of offense or a rock upon which they can build their lives. Which side are you on?
Simeon said that Jesus would cause the falling and rising of many. All of us are bound to fall. We will die. That is a fact. And we fall in the sense that we do things that are wrong. We sin against God and each other. The question is whether we will rise. Those who fall at the feet of Jesus in repentance, who confess their sin and ask for mercy will find forgiveness. They will rise. Those who humble themselves before God will be exalted. But those who refuse to do this will simply fall, with no rising. And that falling will continue forever.
Admitting our sin can be painful. Repentance can feel like a sword is piercing our soul. In fact, there are elements of the Christian life that feel painful. God often uses our pain to cause us to grow. He uses painful events in our lives the way a surgeon wields a scalpel. God causes us pain in order to heal us. But that pain is far better than an eternity of misery, of being cut off from God.
And Christianity is the only religion that says that God knows pain. He knows what it’s like to be cut off. He knows what it’s like to have a sword pierce him, at least metaphorically speaking. When the first human beings sinned against God, they were evicted from Paradise. Adam and Eve had to leave the Garden of Eden. Then God placed cherubim, angelic creatures, to guard the path back to the Garden. And they wielded a flaming sword (Gen. 3:24). The idea is that if someone were to try to get to Paradise, they would be cut down by the sword. We need someone to take the sword for us, to open up the path to Paradise so we can be reconciled to God. And that’s what Jesus did on the cross. He took the sword so that we don’t have to. He fell, bearing God’s righteous, holy wrath against sin so that we don’t have to. Yet after he fell, he rose from the grave. His resurrection guarantees that his work on the cross has the power to defeat sin and death. All who follow Jesus can follow him back to Paradise.
Many people oppose Jesus because they don’t want to be told they are evil, because they don’t want to accept his authority, because they don’t want to change. But Jesus is our only hope. He is the only one who can bring us comfort and joy. He fell so you can rise. He was pierced by the sword so that you don’t have to experience God’s condemnation. I urge you to follow Jesus. Trusting him should be at the top of your bucket list.
- https://www.bucketlist.net/ideas/#top10. ↑
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1981), 161. ↑
- Compare this dedication to 1 Samuel 1:22–28, when Hannah dedicated her son Samuel to the Lord’s service. ↑
- “Caesar’s authority brings the family to Bethlehem (2:4); the law’s authority brings them to Jerusalem, the first time the city is mentioned in the narrative. Following the pattern of step parallelism, Luke conveys his conviction that God’s law is higher than the law of the emperor.” David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 131. “Step parallelism” means that two events run parallel to each other, but the second event is greater. In chapter 1, the parallels between John and Jesus show that while both are special, promised children, Jesus is greater. Here, the parallels show that God’s law is greater than Caesar’s. ↑
- I have italicized some of the key words that connect that passage to this one. ↑
After Jesus is born, his parents bring him to the temple to fulfill the law. There, two older Jewish people meet Jesus and praise God for what they have seen. It seems they waited their whole lives to see Jesus. What are you waiting for?