Heaven and Earth Will Pass Away

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on November 17, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or read below).

Does anyone know what’s going to happen tomorrow? How about next year?

A lot of people make claims about the future. People make predictions about sports, about which team will win today or which team will win the championship. People make predictions about the economy, whether the market will rise or fall. People make political predictions: who will win next year’s election. Whose predictions can we trust?

Generally, we trust predictions made about the future if predictions about the past have come true. That’s how science often works. Scientists come up with hypotheses about how the natural world works, then they make predictions based on those hypotheses. If experimentation and observation prove that the predictions are true, then those hypotheses become theories. Those theories could always turn out to be false, but we trust that things in physics, chemistry, and biology will work tomorrow the way that they have worked today.

But not everything that happens tomorrow can be predicted by science. Some events are singular and can’t be predicted scientifically. Human behavior, for example, isn’t always predictable. Divine behavior—what God will do tomorrow and beyond—isn’t always predictable. Yet people make predictions about the future, so how do we know if we should trust them?

We generally can’t know ahead of time if a prediction is correct, but we tend to listen to people who make predictions if they have a history of making correct predictions. If a political commentator has correctly predicted who will win elections, you will probably listen to their predictions regarding the next election. If a sports commentator has correctly predicted who will win this week’s games or the next championship, you’ll think their predictions for this week and this year might be good guesses. But we don’t expect these people to predict the future perfectly.

But what do we do when it comes to the things of God? Science can’t address much of the issues related to God. He is spirit, an immaterial being, so we can’t detect his activity scientifically. Does that mean we can’t know the truth about God? I think we can know the truth about God, but science won’t get us there. To know God, we need to have him reveal himself to us. Of course, many different religions claim that they have received a revelation from God. They say very different things about God, the universe, human beings, and how we can have a right relationship with God. These different religions can’t all be true. Are any of them true? How can we know?

One way to test a religion is to see if its alleged revelation matches up with history. Is there any archaeological evidence that lines up with what that religion’s holy book claims? Did the predictions made by that religion’s prophets turn out to be true?

When we test Christianity, it comes out well. For example, though not all of the Bible’s historical claims are backed by archaeological evidence, I believe that none of its claims are refuted by archaeological evidence, and every time a new discovery is made, it supports what the Bible says. Also, prophecies about the future are made in the Bible, and we can see if those prophecies have come to pass. Not all religions can say as much. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, claimed that a temple would be built in Independence, Missouri within a generation. Yet that generation died before a temple was built there. His prediction was wrong.[1]

On the other hand, Jesus, who was a prophet (and King and Son of God), made predictions regarding what would happen within a generation. And his predictions came true. Specifically, he predicted that Jerusalem and its temple would be destroyed within a generation. He made this prediction either in the year 30 or, possibly, 33. (Many of the writings of the Bible are difficult to date with great precision because ancient writers didn’t provide specific dates for the events about which they wrote. But the details of Jesus’ life are such that the details of the week of his death can fit with either the year 30 or 33.) The three Gospels that record these predictions were most likely written sometime between the late 50s and mid-60s. Then, beginning in the year 66, Jewish people in Palestine rebelled against the Roman Empire, the world’s greatest superpower and the occupying force of Judea. Rome responded by destroying Jerusalem and its temple, slaughtering many Jews in the year 70. So, Jesus’ prediction, made forty years earlier (the length of a generation according to the Bible; Num. 32:13), was true. Since the Bible says that the test of a true prophet is that he speaks the truth (Deut. 18:22), that means that Jesus is a true prophet, and that we should take Jesus at his word. And Jesus predicted a greater future event: he said that one day he would come again to the Earth, this time to judge everyone who has ever lived and to recreate the world. The destruction of Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago foreshadowed that greater day of judgment, which will come in the future. To be spared judgment, we need to respond to Jesus.

Today, we’re looking at a lengthy section of the Gospel of Luke. We’ll be reading Luke 21:5–38. Most people think this is entirely about what hasn’t come to pass yet, the “end times,” as they’re often called. I think that’s wrong, as I’ll show when I explain the text. Some people think it’s entirely about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. I think that’s very possible. But I think the best reading is that though this passage is primarily about the destruction of Jerusalem and specifically the temple, that event foreshadows the end of the world as we know it.

One more note before I start reading this passage: Today’s sermon may feel a bit like a history lecture. But I think it’s important to know history, and it’s important to know that Christianity is an historical religion. It is based on historical events, events that are recorded even outside of the Bible. This is one of the ways that we know Christianity is true.

So, without further ado, let’s begin reading. We’ll start by reading verses 5–7:

And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” And they asked him, “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?”[2]

This is probably Thursday morning, the day before Jesus will be crucified. He and his disciples are in the temple complex in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the capital of Judea, the holy city of the Jews, and the temple was the religious, political, and symbolic center of their world. It was the time of the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Passover, when Jewish people throughout the Roman Empire would come to Jerusalem, to worship at the temple.

It’s hard to stress how important the temple was to the Jewish people. It was where God dwelled among them, where they worshiped, where sacrifices for their sins were offered. God told the Israelites to build a tabernacle, a portable temple, about fourteen hundred years earlier. During the reign of Solomon, a temple was built in Jerusalem. That temple was destroyed in 586 BC by the Babylonians, because the Jewish people had been unfaithful to God. They worshiped idols and refused to obey God, so God used a foreign nation to judge them.

This was the second temple, which was built in 515 BC, but was substantially renovated by Herod beginning in 20 or 19 BC Most of the work on the building was finished within a decade, but ornamental details were worked on until about AD 63 or 64. The temple was one of the most impressive buildings in the middle east. Herod increased the Temple Mount to an area the size of thirty-five football fields. The retaining walls of the temple were made of huge, heavy stones. “In the 1990s an archeological exploration of the temple foundations revealed a large stone . . . that was 42 x 14 x 11 feet in size and estimated to weigh 600 tons.” Two other stones they found were 40 and 25 feet long.[3] The temple was covered with gold plates that shone so brightly in the sun that people were nearly blinded. This would have been the most impressive site that people living in that area had ever seen.

When some of Jesus’ disciples comment on how impressive the building is, Jesus says the whole thing will be torn down. He doesn’t give the reason why this will happen here, but elsewhere he says it is a judgment by God against a largely unfaithful Jewish people. Also, the time of the temple was about to be over. Jesus, the true temple of God, was about to offer himself up as the only sacrifice needed for sin. Jesus’ words must have shocked his disciples. So, they ask him when this would happen, and what sign would occur before this would take place. This is very important, so I’ll repeat it. Jesus has said that the temple will be destroyed, and his disciples ask when that will happen. This is primarily what this passage is about.

Jesus starts to answer that question in verses 8–19:

And he said, “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them. And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.”

10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. 12 But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. 13 This will be your opportunity to bear witness. 14 Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, 15 for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. 17 You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your lives.

First, Jesus tells his disciples that the time leading up to the temple of the destruction would be one full of people trying to deceive them, claiming that they are the Messiah. We know that there were several people in the first century who claimed to be the Messiah, so this prediction came true.[4] Second, Jesus says there would be wars and rumors of wars. These things happen all the time, so the disciples shouldn’t be worried about such things. There was a war between Rome and Parthia in 36 and a local war between Herod Antipas and the Nabatean king Aretas in 36 and 37.[5] And the war between the Romans and the Jews started in 66. Perhaps that’s what Jesus means when he says, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” But the “end,” the destruction of the temple, was still to come.

Third, says that there would be earthquakes, famines, and pestilence. Again, these things happen all time. There was a large famine during the reign of the emperor Claudius, between roughly 45 and 48 (predicted by the prophet Agabus in Acts 11:28).[6] There were several major earthquakes between 33 and 70, including earthquakes in Antioch (37), Phrygia (53), Asia Minor (61), and Jerusalem (67).

Fourth, Jesus says there will be signs in heaven, probably something to do with stars. Beyond what the New Testament tells us, much of what we know of first-century Palestine comes from Flavius Josephus, a Jew who was a leader of the rebellion in Galilee. He was captured by the Romans and would eventually write histories of this time. Josephus says that during the time when Judea was at war with the Roman Empire, comets were visible for a year and a star that looked like a sword appeared over Jerusalem.[7]

Fifth, Jesus tells the disciples that they would be handed over to civic and religious authorities. We know from the book of Acts that the disciples appeared before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council in Jerusalem, and were flogged (Acts 5:27–42). Stephen and James were martyred (Acts 7:58; 12:2). In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul describes getting flogged and beaten (vv. 23–25), probably by leaders of local synagogues. And Paul appeared before various governors and kings (Acts 18:12–17; 23:23–24:27; 24:27–26:32). All of this would happen before the temple was destroyed.

Normally, we would think that people being killed simply because they’re Christians is a bad thing, but Jesus says that something good will come out of this. When the disciples stand before various religious and civil leaders, they will have an opportunity to bear witness to Jesus. We see that happen most clearly with the disciples in the books of Acts. The disciples were beaten in Jerusalem, but not before proclaiming Jesus (Acts 5:27–32). Stephen gave a long speech in Acts 7 before being killed. Paul used his appearances before various leaders to proclaim Jesus.

Here, Jesus tells the disciples, “Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” Some people misuse this passage to say that we should never think about how to tell people the news of Christianity, or how to answer their questions about and objections to our faith. But think about the context: Jesus is telling his disciples what will happen to them between roughly the years 30 and 70. And, furthermore, he’s telling them not to think about how to answer during times of persecution. He promises them to give them wisdom during those times of great pressure. In those situations, it might be very difficult to say anything, and God will give his people the words to say. But we shouldn’t use this passage as an excuse not to prepare for evangelism. Elsewhere in the New Testament, the apostle Peter tells us, “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15). I think Christians gravitate towards this passage in Luke because they don’t read passages in the Bible in context and because we’re lazy. There’s no excuse for not knowing the Bible, not knowing what the central message of the Bible is, and not knowing how to communicate to people who don’t believe what we believe. Just as I don’t fail to prepare a sermon and say, “Well, God will give me the words to say on Sunday morning,” we shouldn’t fail to prepare to tell people the truth about God.

Jesus also says, in those verses we read earlier, that family will be divided. “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death.” Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus said that he didn’t come to bring peace to all people, but to bring division. He said that family members would be divided because some would respond to him and others would not (Luke 12:51–53). That happened then, and it happens today, especially in areas of the world where there is great persecution against Christians. In this past week’s prayer list that we publish, there was a story from the Voice of the Martyrs about an Egyptian woman who converted from Islam to Christianity. Her own father and brother beat her and tried to kill her.

Jesus doesn’t sugar-coat things here. He says that persecution will come to his followers. Some will even die. But, strangely, he says that not one of their hairs will perish. He can’t mean that literally. He must mean that even if they should die for their faith, they will not ultimately be harmed. The worst that someone can do to them is kill them. They can kill the body, but not the soul (Luke 12:4–7). Those who endure in their faith, even through persecution, will be saved. Real faith allows a person to survive even death.

Now that Jesus has told his followers what will happen before Jerusalem and its temple is destroyed, he starts to talk about what will happen when the Roman Empire surrounds the city and destroys it. Let’s read verses 20–24:

20 “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, 22 for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. 23 Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. 24 They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

There had always been conflict between the Jews and the Roman Empire, who took control of Palestine in 63 BC. Eventually, the conflict would come to a head in AD 66. In 70, Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. This war left untold numbers dead. Josephus tells us that over 600,000 died from starvation in the city and that some people resorted to eating the dung of cattle (Jewish Wars 5.569–571). Even more disturbing, he reports that some women ate their own children (Jewish Wars 6.201–212). This is what would happen when a foreign army came in and besieged a city. They would cut off escape from the city by building siege works. Because this type of battle took a long time, the conquered city would run out of food and people would starve. Josephus tells us that 1.1 million Jews died and 97,000 were taken captive (Jewish Wars 6.420). Some people believe Josephus exaggerated numbers, but even if he did, the destruction in this war was great. According to D. A. Carson, “There have been greater numbers of deaths—six million in the Nazi death camps, mostly Jews, and an estimated twenty million under Stalin—but never so high a percentage of a great city’s population so thoroughly and painfully exterminated and enslaved as during the Fall of Jerusalem.”[8]

When Jesus says that Jerusalem “will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled,” he could mean that Romans—the Gentiles—would thoroughly crush the city. I think that’s the most natural way to read this passage. Others think that Jesus is pivoting to talk about his return. In Romans, the apostle Paul says that many Jewish people will come to faith in Jesus in the future, but only after “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25). That’s a hard to understand passage, just as elements of this passage in Luke are hard to understand. But it seems that prior to Jesus’ return, a large number of ethnically, or biologically, Jewish people will come to faith in Jesus. Jesus could be referring to that reality here.

Most commentators believe that the next few verses are about Jesus’ return to Earth. If you don’t know the Christian story, Jesus will die the day after he says these things. He will be crucified, killed as an enemy of the Roman Empire, not because he did anything wrong, but because it was ultimately God’s plan to have the sin of his people punished. Because we have rebelled against God, in a far worse way than the Jewish people rebelled against the Roman Empire, we deserve death. But God has graciously given us a way to escape his wrath and have our sins punished. If we put our trust in Jesus, if we believe that he is who the Bible says he is and that he has done what the Bible says he has done, we are forgiven. But Jesus didn’t just die to pay the penalty for our sins. He rose from the grave on the third day in a body that can never be destroyed. And shortly thereafter, he ascended into heaven, where he is right now. But he will come someday in the future, to judge the living and the dead. And Jesus is probably talking about that in verses 25–28:

25 “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, 26 people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

I think it’s possible that Jesus is actually talking about the destruction of the temple as his vindication. He says that people will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud.” That’s a reference to something written in the Old Testament book Daniel, when the prophet Daniel sees a vision of a “Son of Man” coming to “the Ancient of Days” to receive dominion, glory, and a kingdom. We understand that this means Jesus, the Son of God, comes to God the Father to receive that kingdom, and he did this after ascending to heaven. Notice that in this passage in Luke, Jesus doesn’t say where “the Son of Man” comes. Is he coming to Earth or to the Father? It could be that Jesus means something like this, “The destruction of the temple will be to the Jewish people as if their world is destroyed. To them, it will be as if their world is shattered. But don’t be afraid. That judgment will be a vindication of me. It will prove that my words are true. When you see that happening, stand up straight, confident in the faith.” That could be true because the Bible often uses language of “signs in sun and moon and stars” hyperbolically, to talk about the destruction of an empire, the end of one age and the beginning of another.

But Jesus could very well be talking about his return to Earth. He might mean something like this: “The temple will be destroyed, just as it was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. These acts of judgment are pictures of a greater, final judgment when I return. Don’t worry about signs that appear before my return, because you won’t miss that. Everyone will see me come. And many will be afraid. But when I return, you have no reason to fear—if you endure in your faith.” All of the judgments we read about in the Bible, whether it’s the flood during Noah’s day, the destruction of the city of Sodom, the judgment that came upon the Egyptians during the Passover and the Red Sea, and the destruction of Jerusalem’s temples, foreshadow the great, final judgment. Those who have rejected Jesus should be afraid. They will be condemned. But those who have put their trust in Jesus have no reason to fear.

Then, Jesus returns to a discussion of what will happen before the fall of Jerusalem. Let’s read verses 29–33:

29 And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30 As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

When the disciples see that the things Jesus says will happen before the destruction of the temple come to pass, they should know that God’s kingdom is advancing. And they are drawing one day closer to when the kingdom of God will be fully realized on Earth. Jesus says that his predictions regarding Jerusalem and the temple would happen within a generation, and they did. This is further proof that his word is true. And he boldly declares that even though this world as we know it will pass away and be replaced with a new creation, one where there is no evil, no decay, and no sin, his words won’t pass away. Jesus speaks the words of God, because he is God. So much of the words we bother with are short-lived, but Jesus’ words endure forever. Because what he says is true, we can take him at his word. His true predictions about what happen in the first century give us confidence that everything else he says is true, including his return when he comes in glory to gather his people, to condemn those who rebel against him, and to bring about the new creation.

Jesus then concludes his message with a warning for all of us. Let’s read verses 34–38:

34 “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. 36 But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

37 And every day he was teaching in the temple, but at night he went out and lodged on the mount called Olivet. 38 And early in the morning all the people came to him in the temple to hear him.

Jesus tells us to be ready, not to get overpowered by distractions and drunkenness, not to fall into a spiritual stupor or be overwhelmed by “the cares of this life.” Instead, we should live life knowing that Jesus could return soon—or we could die at any time. Either way, we will have to stand before him in judgment. Therefore, we should stay awake. Jesus doesn’t mean that literally. He slept like everyone else. But he means we should be spiritually prepared. We should put our faith in him. We should realize that this life will not last forever.

The apostle Paul says something similar in 1 Thessalonians 5. He says that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:2). Most people will think they are secure, but they will be destroyed (1 Thess. 5:3). Then, Paul says to Christians,

So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.

Here’s the main thing you should take away from today: What Jesus said would happen has happened. This isn’t just recorded in the Bible. Josephus, who was not a Christian, wrote about it. One can also look at the Arch of Titus in Rome, which was built around the year 81 to celebrate Titus’s victory over the Jews and which has depictions of that victory on it. We have good reason to believe that Jesus made his predictions in the year 30 or 33, and that the Gospel of Luke was written in the early 60s. (In 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul quotes Luke 10:7. Paul wrote that letter in the mid-60s, so Luke must have been written earlier. Also, there are good reasons to believe that the book of Acts was written by the mid-60s. Since Acts it the sequel to Gospel of Luke, and since Luke probably conducted research for his Gospel while Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea around 57–59, there’s no reason why Luke couldn’t have written his Gospel around the year 60.) So, Jesus’ predictions came before the destruction of Jerusalem. His predictions were true. Why shouldn’t we believe everything else he says? His words are the words of God, and they will endure long after the words of today’s politicians, journalists, academics, actors, novelists, and historians will be forgotten.

Trust in Jesus. Be ready for his return. And tell other people how they can endure in the faith so that they can gain eternal life.

If you do trust in Jesus, know that he hasn’t promised us an easy life. He didn’t promise his disciples that things would be easy for them. We may or may not face great persecution, but all of will suffer. Yet Jesus promises to be with us and he promises that he will ultimately deliver us from evil.

Notes

  1. Robert M. Bowman, Jr., “Joseph Smith’s Missouri Temple Prophecy,” Institute for Religious Research, August 22, 2017, http://mit.irr.org/joseph-smiths-missouri-temple-prophecy.
  2. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. Robert H. Stein, Jesus, the Temple, and the Coming Son of Man: A Commentary on Mark 13 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 55.
  4. Stein, Jesus, the Temple and the Coming Son of Man, 77, mentions several: Theudas and Judas the Galilean (Acts 5:37; Josephus, Antiquities 17.271; Jewish Wars 2.56); Simon of Perea (Antiquities 17.273–77; Jewish Wars 2.57–59) and Athronges of Judea (Antiquities 17.278–84; Jewish Wars 2.60–65). Right before a.d. 70, there were Menahem, the son of Judas the Galilean (Jewish Wars 2.433–48), John of Gischala (Jewish Wars 2.585–89; 4.121–27), and Simon bar-Giora (Jewish Wars 4.503–44; 4.556–83).
  5. R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 903.
  6. Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 372-374.
  7. Josephus, Jewish War 6.274–89.
  8. D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in Matthew, Mark, Luke, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 501.

 

Heaven and Earth Will Pass Away (Luke 21:5-38)

Jesus predicts the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Roman Empire, an act of judgment that foreshadows that great day of judgment when Jesus comes again. Jesus predicted the future, his predictions were written down in advance of the destruction of Jerusalem, and this predictions were proven true. This gives us good reason to believe that his words are true and will never pass away. Brian Watson preached this sermon on November 17, 2019.

In the Temple

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on October 20, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or read below).

What is the most important place in America? When I say “place,” I’m thinking not of a state or a city, but of something more specific, a site, a piece of land, a building. What do you think is the most important place, a place that Americans regard as sacred?

I had a hard time coming up with just one place. For some, it might be a place that has a lot of symbolic weight, like the State of Liberty. Lady Liberty stands as a symbol of freedom, beckoning the tired, poor huddled masses to a new life in America. The Statue of Liberty is important because of what it stands for. But in another sense, it’s not important. It’s less than one hundred fifty years old, no historical events took place right where it stands, and nothing important happens there—well, other than tourists visiting it.

Perhaps a political building is the most important place. Depending on which branch of government you think is most important, the most important place might be the White Office, the Capitol Building, or the Supreme Court Building. Important things happen in those places.

For some people, the most important place might be a religious site. I have a hard time coming up with one particular church or cathedral in America. But if we were in France, the Notre-Dame would probably be the most important religious building. That’s why so many people grieved when the building was on fire earlier this year.

We Americans might not have one site that is the most important symbolic, political, and religious site. There are probably a lot of cultural, political, and religious reasons why that is the case. But for the Jewish people of Jesus’ day, the most important symbolic, political, and religious site was the temple in Jerusalem. There’s nothing in America that we can compare it to. Imagine if the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, Mount Rushmore, the White House, the US Capitol, the Supreme Court Building, and the most important church buildings were all combined. That’s kind of like what the temple was for Judaism.

Today, as we continue to study the life of Jesus, we’re going to see Jesus go to the temple in Jerusalem and challenge the authority of the temple’s leaders. It would be like taking a tour of the White House, then sneaking past Secret Service and going to the Oval Office and telling the President what to do. Now, there are a lot of people who tell the President what to do and where to go on Twitter, but it would be something else to go right into the Oval Office and act like you’re the real President. But that’s more or less what Jesus does. And, as you can imagine, that gets him into trouble with the religious leaders of his day.

We’ve been working our way through the Gospel of Luke for some time. The Gospel of Luke is one of four biographies of Jesus that we find in the Bible. Today, we’re going to read the very end of chapter 19 and the beginning of chapter 20. We’ll start by reading Luke 19:45–48:

45 And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, 46 saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.”

47 And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him, 48 but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were hanging on his words.[1]

This story is Jesus’ so-called cleansing of the temple. Both Matthew and Mark have longer accounts of this event (Matt. 21:12–16; Mark 11:15–18). Luke focuses on the essential details. Jesus goes into the temple, kicks some people out, and quotes two different passages from the Old Testament. Then he starts teaching at the temple daily during the last week of his life. This is most likely Monday. He will be crucified four days later.

As I said earlier, the temple was the most important symbolic, political, and religious place for Jews. The temple represented where God dwelled among the Jews. Specifically, he was supposed to reside in the Most Holy Place, the inner part of the temple building. The temple was also the place where priests offered up animal sacrifices which were supposed to pay for the sins of the people. The priest would touch the heads of animals that were sacrificed, symbolically transferring the sin of the people to the animals, who would then be slaughtered in place of sinful people. This taught Israel that the penalty for sin was death, but that this penalty could be taken by another, a substitute. The temple was also a place where priests taught people, and where prayers were made.

Jesus goes into this most important place and acts like he owns it. At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, there’s a brief story of how Jesus, at age 12, was sitting among teachers at the temple and asking them questions. When his parents, who didn’t know where he was, found him there and rebuked him , Jesus said, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 12:41–49). God the Father owns the temple, and what belongs to the Father belongs to the Son of God, Jesus.

At the temple, people were supposed to offer animal sacrifices. People who traveled to the temple from a distance could buy animals at the temple instead of traveling with animals. They also had to pay a tax to the temple, and the tax had to be paid in a particular currency, a coin made in the city of Tyre. So, there were people who sold animals, and there were money changers, people who exchanged currency. The people who sold animals and changed money did so for a profit.

Why did Jesus drive out people who sold things? There are at least two different possible interpretations, understandings of this passage that aren’t mutually exclusive. One is that people were selling animals and exchanging currency at high rates, making money off the poor and the pious. Perhaps Jesus drove them out because they were capitalizing on religious practices. That would make sense of Jesus’ quotation of Jeremiah 7:11, the bit that calls the temple a “den of robbers.”

Another interpretation is that Jesus’ action of driving out these sellers is a symbolic and prophetic action. He’s announcing that the days of the temple building are coming to an end.[2] There will be a new temple, a true temple, one where no animal sacrifices are needed, one that all of God’s people can access directly, wherever they are. There will be no more pilgrimages to one holy site. Jesus is the true temple of God. He is the “place” where God and his people meet. His body will be the true sacrifice for sin. The blood of animals cannot pay for human sin. If someone is going to take the penalty for my sin, it must be a human. In the animal sacrificial system, only unblemished animals could be sacrificed. They had to be perfect. This meant that something valuable was sacrificed. Jesus is the only unblemished human. And he can take the penalty of sin away from many people because he’s not just a man. No, he’s the God-man, truly God and truly human. He is infinite, and his sacrifice on the cross can take away the sins of every single person who comes to Jesus in faith, who trusts that he is divine, that he’s the world’s only Savior, and that he is the King of kings and Lord of lords. Anyone who trusts Jesus personally, knowing that he is the only way to be made right with God, and that is the ultimate authority, becomes part of the true temple of God. When you come to Christ, you become a dwelling place for God. God the Holy Spirit lives in you. You have 24/7 access to God, wherever you are.

Jesus came to the temple to show that the leadership of the people had become corrupt. If you look at Jeremiah 7, which Jesus quotes here, you can see that about six hundred years earlier, the people of Judah were corrupt. They oppressed and killed other people. They put their trust in false gods, in idols. They even made the temple into an idol, trusting that as long as they had the temple building, they could not go wrong. God warned the people that because they had not listened to him, he would destroy the temple.

But Jesus also came to announce that the temple was no longer going to be needed. The true sacrifice for sin was about to be offered to God. And Jesus knew that many people would come to the true temple, his body, and become part of God’s people. That’s why he quotes Isaiah 56:7, which refers to the temple as “a house of prayer for all peoples.” Isaiah, over seven hundred years earlier, foresaw a day when foreigners, Gentiles, would “join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants” (Isa. 56:6). And that same passage in Isaiah 56 speaks of the leaders of Israel as “watchmen [who] are blind” and “shepherds who have no understanding” (Isa. 56:10–11). Jesus seems to indicate that the leaders of his day didn’t really know God. They were blind. They didn’t recognize God’s own Son when he was right in front of them.

Jesus acts like he owns the temple. He seems to say that the current leadership of Israel is wrong. And that’s why the leaders—the chief priests, the scribes, and other leading men—wanted to destroy Jesus. But they couldn’t destroy him right then and there. There were too many people “hanging on his words.” Many people were attracted to Jesus because there was never anyone like him, someone who taught with complete authority. If the Jewish leaders killed Jesus in front of these people, there would be a riot. The Jewish leaders couldn’t afford a riot, because that would lead the Roman Empire, which controlled the land, to punish the Jewish leaders. The high priest was a political appointment. The Roman governor of Judea had the authority to remove a high priest and replace him with another. The chief priests didn’t want to lose political power, so they had to find some other way to get rid of Jesus.

Since Jesus comes to the temple and acts like he owns the place, the Jewish leaders want to know what kind of authority Jesus has. So, they ask him. Let’s read Luke 20:1–8 to see what happens:

1 One day, as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders came up and said to him, “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.” He answered them, “I also will ask you a question. Now tell me, was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ all the people will stone us to death, for they are convinced that John was a prophet.” So they answered that they did not know where it came from. And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

The Jewish leaders ask Jesus two questions that are related. Really, they want to know where he gets such authority. Jesus didn’t have political power. And he wasn’t an official religious leader. He wasn’t a priest. So, how can he act like he owns the place. Again, if you were to confront the President in the Oval Office, e hmight say, “Who gives you the right to tell me what to do?”

Jesus answers by asking his own question. He asks them if John the Baptist had authority from God or if John’s ministry was simply manmade. John the Baptist was a relative of Jesus who preached in the wilderness. He told people that the Messiah, the anointed King of Israel, was coming. He told people to prepare for this event by repenting of their sins. And he baptized people as a sign that they needed to be made clean. He told them that being biologically related to Abraham, the father of all Israelites, didn’t guarantee them a place in God’s kingdom. He told them to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). He also told people, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). He was referring to Jesus. Many people responded to John’s message, but most people ignored him, including the leaders of the Jews.

So, Jesus is asking them if John’s message was from God. If so, then they should have responded to him. And they should have known that Jesus was the one greater than John, the one that John promised would come. If John came from God, then the leaders should have known that Jesus came from God, and that he is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). But if John’s message wasn’t from God, then it’s possible that he was wrong, and that Jesus wasn’t from God.

The Jewish leaders then huddle up and discuss how they will answer Jesus’ question. If they say that John was from God, then they should have believed John. And that means they should recognize who Jesus is. If John’s ministry wasn’t from God, then they can simply reject Jesus. But the crowds thought that John was a true prophet, so if they say that John wasn’t from God, they’ll get into political trouble. The Jewish leaders don’t believe that John was a prophet, but they don’t want to get into hot water with the people, so they give a very political answer: “We don’t know.” That’s like a politician saying, “I don’t recall,” or, “I’m not allowed to speak to that,” or, “That’s above my pay grade.” We’ve heard these political answers before, and we’ve come to expect that kind of dishonesty from politicians. It’s sad that these men, who were supposed to speak for God, are mere politicians.

Jesus therefore says that he won’t answer them. But, in fact, Jesus does answer them—just not directly. He tells them where his authority comes from. Jesus also tells them who they are. He does this in a parable. Let’s read Luke 20:9–18:

And he began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants and went into another country for a long while. 10 When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, so that they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 11 And he sent another servant. But they also beat and treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. 12 And he sent yet a third. This one also they wounded and cast out. 13 Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ 14 But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’ 15 And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? 16 He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Surely not!” 17 But he looked directly at them and said, “What then is this that is written:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone’?

18 Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

This parable is almost like an allegory. In an allegory, every character in the story stands in for someone in real life. The man who plants a vineyard is God. The vineyard represents the place of God’s people. In this story, it could represent the temple or Jerusalem, or possibly all the land of Israel. The tenants are the leaders of the people. The servants of the owner are prophets. And the son is the Son of God.

In the Old Testament, Israel is often called a vine (Ps. 80:8; Jer. 2:21; 12:10; Ezek. 17:6; 19:10–14; Hos. 10:1). And God planted his “vine” in his “vineyard,” the land of Israel. In Isaiah 5, there’s a famous passage that speaks of God carefully making a vineyard. He expects the vineyard to produce good fruit. Instead, it produces “wild grapes.” And God says that he will then destroy the vineyard (see Isa. 5:1–6). That passage ends with these words:

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
but behold, bloodshed;
for righteousness,
but behold, an outcry! (Isa. 5:7)

God expects good fruit from his people. God is our Creator, and therefore he owns us. God can’t have a bunch of rotten fruit spoiling his creation. He’s very patient, and he puts up with our bad fruit for a long time. But his patience has limits. There will be a day when all the rotten fruit will be removed from his vineyard, so to speak, and destroyed. We refer to that as Judgement Day. But even before that final day of judgment, there are times when God brings things to an end. These are lesser acts of judgment. Israel’s temple had already been destroyed about six hundred years earlier, in 586 BC. And this second temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed in forty years, in AD 70.

Jesus is telling the Jewish leaders that they are like those wicked tenant farmers of the story. They were supposed to manage God’s possessions and produce good fruit. But they didn’t. God sent them many servants: the prophets. But the people rejected the prophets, and even killed them. There are stories in the Old Testament of prophets being killed (Jer. 26:20–23; 2 Chron. 24:20–22) and Jewish tradition says that many of the prominent prophets, like Isaiah, were martyred. Hebrews 11:36–38 says that many were killed. At then end of the book of Chronicles, which chronicles a long portion of Israel’s history, we’re told this:

14 All the officers of the priests and the people likewise were exceedingly unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations. And they polluted the house of the Lord that he had made holy in Jerusalem.

15 The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. 16 But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord rose against his people, until there was no remedy (2 Chron. 36:14–16).

And right after that passage, we’re told about the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, the act of judgment that God brought upon Jewish people because of their idolatry and sin (2 Chron. 36:17–21).

So, in this story, the servants are the prophets, and they are treated worse and worse. Finally, the owner of the vineyard sends his own son, thinking that the tenant farmers will treat him with respect. But these wicked tenants kill him, thinking that, somehow, they can keep the vineyard that way. This is the owner’s only son. He is thrown out of the vineyard and put to death. But because of that death, the owner will destroy those evil tenants and give the vineyard to others. Those who reject God’s Son will be judged, and other people, those who embrace the Son, will become part of God’s people.

When Jesus tells this story, the crowds say, “Surely not!” They understand what Jesus is saying about Israel. They don’t want God to judge them and replace them with others. But Jesus says that the Son who is rejected will be the foundation of a new people of God, anyone who comes to the Son. He quotes Psalm 118:22: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” I talked about Psalm 118 a bit a couple of weeks ago, when we looked at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and how people quoted another part of that Psalm: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Ps. 118:26). Jesus is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. But he’s also the one who is rejected, the one who will be taken outside of the city walls and crucified, even though he was an innocent man. Yet even though he is killed, he rises from the grave, and he becomes the cornerstone of the church. The church is built on Jesus, the one who is rejected by sinful humans but who is precious and chosen in God’s sight (1 Pet. 2:4).

Jesus is saying that he is the one sent from God. He is the Son of God. But he also knows that he will be treated like the prophets. He will be rejected and killed. Yet this is all part of God’s plan. God’s uses evil and turns it for good. The people will kill the Son of God because they don’t believe him. But God’s plan was always for the Son to become human and die, so that the sins of his people could be punished without the people themselves being destroyed. This was the Son’s plan as well as the Father’s. Jesus lays down his life for his people.

So, the irony is that while these wicked, faithless leaders think they can stop Jesus, by arranging to have him killed, they are actually making sure that the Son’s plan comes to pass. Jesus cannot be stopped or thwarted. He is the ultimate authority. If people try to kill him, he will rise from the grave. And when people try to kill Christianity by persecuting Christians, more people come to Christ. God uses evil for good. In fact, God’s plans include using evil for good. So, evil cannot stop God. It is no match for him. These Jewish leaders conspired to kill the King of the Jews. And Jesus was killed. But that was his plan all along. He was crucified so that sinners could have their sin punished. He was exiled from the vineyard so more people could enter into it. And that vineyard is given to people who trust in Jesus, whether they are Jewish or Gentile. No one is born into the vineyard. But we can be born into God’s vineyard if God transforms us, gives us the Holy Spirit, and leads us to turn away from our sins and to trust in Jesus.

What does this passage have to do with us? Let’s think through what Jesus is doing in this passage. He comes to the temple and acts like he owns it. As the Son of God, he owns everything. He owns us, because he made us. What would it look like for Jesus to show up in our lives right now? What would Jesus find if he were to investigate our lives? Would he find us trusting in him and living life on his terms? Would he see that we believe he is the ultimate authority because he is God? Would he see us obeying his commandments? Or would he find us faithless? To put it another way, how would Jesus cleanse our lives? What from our lives would he drive out? Or, to look at the situation from another perspective, what good things would Jesus drive into our lives?

Those are personal questions. I can’t answer them for you. I imagine that what he would see would vary from person to person. But I’m sure that all of us have things in our lives that need to be driven out. All of us live in ways that don’t completely line up with the way of Jesus. We are often like those Jewish leaders—we want to be the ones in control, we want to be the ultimate authority. To quote that popular song from the ‘80s: “Everybody wants to rule the world.”

If you are a Christian, I ask you to pray to God something like this: “Father in heaven, please reveal to me the ways in which I’m being rebellious. Please show me where I’m not following Jesus. Please show me the things in my life that need to be removed. Give me the strength the follow Jesus the way that I should.”

If you’re not a Christian, I urge to trust in Jesus. You can fight against his authority. You can deny him and ignore him. But you can’t avoid him forever. You will have to deal with him, either now or on that great day of judgment. And you will either be part of his vineyard because you’ve come to embrace him in this life, or you will be removed from his vineyard, where there is nothing but a joyless and painful existence for all eternity. Turn to Jesus now. There is no greater authority, because he is God. To reject Jesus is to reject your Maker. And there will be consequences for that. But know that Jesus is not just some harsh preacher of judgment. He’s also the one who lays down his life for sinners. His death can pay for all the sins you’ve ever committed. There’s no sin that Jesus’ sacrifice can’t atone for. But to have your sins forgiven, you need to trust in Jesus. And that will lead to a change in your life. You will live as if he is King. I would love to talk to you about following Jesus if you’re not doing that now.

There’s still another thing for us to think about. What if Jesus came to all churches that bear his name? What would he find? Many churches don’t worship the way the Bible tells us to. Churches ignore what the Bible says about church leadership. They ignore what the Bible says about preaching. They ignore what the Bible says about evangelism, about telling people the good news of Jesus. They ignore what the Bible says about making disciples, teaching them all Jesus commanded—either directly or through his prophets and apostles. They ignore what the Bible says about money and generosity, or about church discipline, or about all kinds of things. No church is perfect. This church is certainly not. Churches contain people who strive for positions of power, like the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day. It is often the case that people who aren’t godly try to gain control of a church. And they don’t want to give up that control, even if that would lead to following the Bible’s instructions more closely. Struggles for power often make people do very ungodly things. It’s happened in this church, and I can assure that it has happened or is happening right now in just about every church there is.

What would Jesus say about this church? What would he drive out? Let us think about that and pray about it. May God give us the wisdom and the grace to make any changes that are necessary.

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. I must give credit for this interpretation to Eckhard J. Schnabel, Jesus in Jerusalem: The Last Days (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 161–164.

 

The Mystery of Godliness (1 Timothy 3:14-16)

The church is God’s household and temple. It is also a guardian of truth. That’s why right theology and right behavior matter in the life of the Christian and the church. Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 Timothy 3:14-16.

I Must Be in My Father’s House (Luke 2:41-52)

Luke is the only Gospel that contains the story of a 12-year-old Jesus at the temple. What do we learn from this story? We learn more about who Jesus is (Son of the Father and also a human being), why he came (to do the will of the Father, in this case by learning and explaining the Scriptures), and his priorities. Pastor Brian Watson explains Luke 2:41-52 in this sermon.

I Must Be in My Father’s House (Luke 2:41-52)

This sermon was preached on January 7, 2018 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon, prepared in advance (see also below).

Do you ever wonder what famous people were like when they were children? Do you ever watch Patriot games, or Patriot press conferences, and wonder what Bill Belichick was like as a child? Did he ever smile? If you asked little Billy Belichick how what he got for Christmas, he probably would say, “I’m just focused on preparing for New Year’s.” Did you ever wonder what Donald Trump was like as a kid? Did he have that hair? Did he wear a long red tie? We can thank God that Twitter didn’t exist back then.

It’s natural, then, to wonder what Jesus was like as a child. What was he like as a boy? People have made up stories about Jesus as a child. There are stories of him that came a century after the Bible was written, stories about him making birds out of clay, for example.[1] Others who are into eastern religions or New Age spirituality claim that Jesus went to India as a child. We have no evidence of this and it would make no sense for a Jewish boy to travel there. The only early, detailed, and reliable documents concerning Jesus are the documents of the New Testament. And the Bible hardly tells us anything about Jesus before he was a man. We have the stories of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. But there is only one story of Jesus as a child. And that is the story that we’re looking at today, in Luke 2:41–52. This is the end of the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. The rest of his biography of Jesus describes what Jesus did when he was in his thirties. The one story that we see today gives us an indication of who Jesus is and what he came to do. It also shows us that when we rightly prioritize things in our lives, people will not understand.

Before we read today’s passage, I want to read again the last verse of the passage that we read last week. Here is what Luke 2:40 says: “And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.”[2] Like any other child, Jesus grew. The next time we meet him, he’s 12 years old. And, for the first time in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus speaks. Let’s hear what he says to say. We’ll read Luke 2:41–52:

41 Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. 43 And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, 44 but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, 45 and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” 49 And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. 51 And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart.

52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.

Here’s some context to help us understand this passage. Jesus and his parents live in Nazareth, in the region of Galilee, roughly an 80-mile journey north of Jerusalem (if they went around Samaria). [3] That would take about four days to walk. Jewish people were supposed to go the temple in Jerusalem three times a year, to attend the three major feasts: Passover, Pentecost, and the feast of Tabernacles (Exod. 23:14–17; 34:22–23; Deut. 16:16). People who traveled to Jerusalem often went in caravans, in part for safety’s sake; those who went alone or in small groups were vulnerable to highway robbers. We see that Jesus’ parents were faithful, making their annual trip to Jerusalem for Passover.

On the way back, Joseph and Mary didn’t realize that Jesus wasn’t with them. This may seem strange, but we have to remember he was twelve. In the eyes of Jewish people, he was one year shy of being a man. Perhaps Joseph and Mary thought Jesus was with some of their relatives or among other travelers in their caravan. For whatever reason, they didn’t notice Jesus wasn’t with them until the end of the first day. They took another day’s journey to go back to Jerusalem, and then, on the third day, they found Jesus in the temple. (He would have been somewhere in the temple complex, not in the temple building itself, since only priests could enter that holy building.)

When Joseph and Mary find Jesus there, he is “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” These would be teachers of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. The way Jesus was interacting with them astonished them: “all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” He was wise beyond his years.

Jesus’ parents were astonished, too. But they weren’t pleased. When they find him, Mary says, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” That last word is used to describe the rich man who was in “anguish” (Luke 16:25) in Hades in the famous parable of Lazarus and the rich man, which comes later in Luke’s Gospel. It’s understandable that Joseph and Mary would be in distress, not knowing where their son was. Last week, we found out that Jesus would cause a “sword” to pierce Mary’s soul (Luke 2:35). This is one of those times when Jesus caused her distress.

But Jesus was not sinning. He tells Mary, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” I have to explain that second question. In the original language, which is Greek, Jesus says that he had to be “in the . . . of my Father.”[4] Luke actually doesn’t provide us a noun. Grammatically, it can’t be “house” or “temple,” because the first “the” is plural. The King James Version has Jesus saying, “I must be about my Father’s business” (so also the New King James Version). It could be that Jesus had in mind the “things” or “affairs” of his Father. The point that Jesus is making is that he is concerned with the business of God the Father. Shouldn’t his parents understand by now that he needed to be at the temple, doing the work of discussing the meaning of Scripture with the teachers there?

He also says that he “must” be doing this work. That could also be translated “it is necessary for me to be doing the things of my Father.” Several times in Luke’s Gospel, he has Jesus saying that he must do things. This means these things are part of God’s eternal plan. Later, Jesus will say that he had to preach the gospel (Luke 4:43), that he had to suffer, die, and be raised (Luke 9:22; 17:25; 24:7, 26), that he had to do this in Jerusalem (Luke 13:33), that he had to stay with Zacchaeus (Luke 19:5), that he had to be numbered among the transgressors (Luke 22:37), and that it was necessary that Scripture about him be fulfilled (Luke 24:44). There were certain things that Jesus had to do, tasks that his Father gave him. And Jesus did them. He was perfectly obedient to the Father.

Jesus’ words about his “Father” must have been a bit surprising to Joseph and Mary. Of course, Joseph knew he wasn’t Jesus’ biological father. Still, I wonder if these words stung him a bit. But what is surprising is how closely Jesus identifies himself with God. The Jews as a whole could refer to God as “Father” (Deut. 32:6; Isa. 63:16; 64:8), but we don’t have a record of individual Jewish people talking about God as “my Father.” Jesus clearly identifies himself with God in the most intimate of ways. This is particularly clear in John’s Gospel. At one point in the book of John, Jesus says he must heal on the Sabbath because his Father is always working. (God never takes a day off. He is always busy sustaining the universe.) Jesus says, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17). Then, in the next verse, John explains the result of this statement: “This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18). Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus will say, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Again, that causes some Jewish leaders to want to kill him (John 10:31). In many ways, the Gospels show that Jesus is divine. He is the Son of God. He truly is God.

And yet Jesus was and is also truly man. He truly was a boy who submitted to his parents. We’re told that he “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature.” He not only grew in size, but he grew in wisdom. He had to learn. He had to study the Old Testament and grow in his understanding of it.

Now that I’ve explained the text, I want to point out some important theological principles. The first is that Jesus came to reveal more clearly who God is. He did this in part by further explaining the Old Testament. It makes perfect sense that he would be at the temple learning from the teachers of Scripture there. And it seems that his questions challenged those teachers. It’s quite possible they were learning as much from him as he was learning from them.

This is now the second time that we see Jesus at the temple. Last week, we saw that the baby Jesus was brought there (Luke 2:22–40). The next time that Luke talks about Jesus at the temple is during Satan’s temptation of Jesus (Luke 4:9). The fourth time that Jesus is at the temple (in Luke’s Gospel) is when he comes to it during the passion week, the week that includes his death. He cleanses the temple (Luke 19:45–48), he teaches at the temple (Luke 20), and he says a time is coming when the temple will be destroyed (Luke 21:5–24). In part, that was because many Jews failed to see that their Messiah, their long-awaited anointed King, had come. But the temple had to go because Jesus came to replace the temple. He was and is the true meeting place of God and his people. He is our “place” of worship. His death on the cross replaced the whole system of animal sacrifices that could never really atone for human sins. Jesus came to the temple during this Passover to learn and, perhaps, teach. The next time he comes to the temple at Passover, he comes to die. Though he was and is perfect, never having done anything wrong, he died for the sins of anyone who would trust him. All who realize they have rebelled against God, that they have sinned, and who realize that Jesus’ perfect life and sacrificial death are the only way to be right with God, have the penalty of their wrongdoing paid for. We can be forgiven for the worst sins if we trust Jesus, because he died for us.

The second principle we should see is that Jesus was aware of who he was and he had his priorities right. He knew he had to honor his father and mother. But he also had to do what his Father in heaven wanted him to do. Mary didn’t understand this. And this isn’t the last time that Jesus’ family wouldn’t understand him (Mark 3:20–21, 31–35).

The third principle we should see is that Jesus is not only God, but he is also human. Though he has always existed as the Son of God, over two thousand years ago, he also became a human being. He was conceived—supernaturally—in a womb. He grew there. He had a real birth. He had to grow and learn. He had to eat, drink, sleep, and go to the bathroom. He was and still is truly a human being, though one who also happens to be God.

It’s hard to understand this amazing fact, that God became man. This is what we call the incarnation, which literally means “enfleshment.” Jesus, the “Word of God,” became flesh (John 1:14). That means he had a human body, a human soul, and a human mind. He wasn’t just “God trapped in a body.” He was and is truly human and it’s important to know this (1 John 4:2–3; 2 John 7).

It’s hard for us to comprehend how one person could have two natures, a divine nature and a human nature. It’s difficult for us to fathom that Jesus is God and man. It seems like it involves contradictions. As one theologian, Mark Jones, says,

In Christ we see eternity and temporality, eternal blessedness and temporal sorrow, omnipotence and weakness, omniscience and ignorance, unchangeableness and mutability, infinity and finitude. All of these contrasting attributes come together in the person of Jesus Christ.[5] . . . Jesus learned and Jesus knew all things; Jesus died and Jesus gives life to all living creatures; Jesus drank from his mother’s breasts and Jesus provided his mother with the milk to feed him.[6]

I think it’s particularly hard to understand how Jesus could be both God, which means he is omniscient, and also human, which means he doesn’t know all things and would have to learn the way that you and I learn. It’s true that Jesus had the Holy Spirit, “the Spirit of wisdom and understanding” (Isa. 11:2). But Jesus also had to do the hard work of learning. He had to learn how to walk and speak. He had to learn how to read and write. He had to learn the Hebrew Bible.

So, how can Jesus be both God and man in his understanding? Well, the answer is that he had two minds. This might at first seem nonsensical, but it’s not. I want to read one explanation of how this works. It’s a bit technical, but I’ll explain. These are the words of the theologian John Feinberg:

[I]n Christ there were two minds (two distinct ranges of consciousness), one divine and one human. Christ possessed the eternal mind of God the Son, which knows all things. But he also possessed a “distinctly earthly consciousness that came into existence and grew and developed as the boy Jesus grew and developed.” The relation between the two minds was asymmetrical. That is, the divine mind knew and had access to everything the human mind knew, but the human mind has access to the divine only when the divine mind allowed it access. What Jesus knew through his human mind alone and apart from any access it had to his divine mind was only what was available to any other human living at that time. But since he was not merely human, Jesus had access to information that no mere human could know apart from divine revelation.[7]

To use an imperfect analogy, Jesus is like a computer that has two processors and two hard drives. One processor is so fast that it takes no time to process information. One hard drive has unlimited storage space. The other processor is more modest, and the other hard drive has limits. As a man, Jesus uses the more modest processor and the limited hard drive. Every once in a while, he could switch processors and hard drives. According to Jesus’ divine nature, he never had to learn anything. He knew everything. But according to his human nature, Jesus had to learn and didn’t know everything. Most of the time while on earth, it seems that Jesus functioned according to his human nature. But he always has access to his divine nature, and when he knew what people were thinking or their secrets, and when he performed miracles, he was accessing his divine powers.

Another way of thinking about this is to imagine a star athlete playing with children. Let’s imagine Kyrie Irving, the star of the Celtics, playing with some children on a playground. In order to let the kids play with him, Kyrie might tone down his game. He might not run and dribble as fast as he can, or jump as high as he can. But every once in a while, to show the kids that he is indeed an NBA All-Star, he might pull out some of his famous dribbling abilities or dunk the ball. In that scenario, Kyrie never lost his basketball superpowers, he just decided not to use them.[8]

In order to learn more about how Jesus can be both God and human, I would encourage you to listen to the sermon, “Jesus Was a Man,” that I preached three years ago. You could find it on our website under the “Who Is Jesus?” sermon series.[9]

What’s important for us is to know that Jesus needed to be fully and truly human in order to save us. As Mark Jones explains, “If he did not have both a human body and a human soul, then the incarnation did not entirely take place, and some aspect of our humanity could not be redeemed. As the early church father Gregory Nazianzen famously declared: ‘For that which He has not assumed He has not healed.’”[10] Jesus needed to fulfill God’s expectations for humanity. He needed to live the perfect human life in our place in order to satisfy what we might call God’s positive demands. And he also needed to die as the perfect, eternal, infinite sacrifice, to fulfill what we might call God’s negative demands. God is a perfect, righteous judge, and any righteous judge will have the crimes of criminals punished. In order to gain freedom, we need to have the penalty for our crimes paid in full, and that’s what Jesus does for us.

Augustine, a famous theologian and pastor who lived sixteen hundred years ago, summarized the mystery and wonder of Jesus’ incarnation. He once wrote,

Man’s maker was made man,
that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast;
that the Bread might hunger,
the Fountain thirst,
the Light sleep,
the Way be tired on its journey;
that the Truth might be accused of false witness,
the Teacher be beaten with whips,
the Foundation might be suspended on wood;
that Strength might grow weak;
that the Healer might be wounded;
that Life might die.[11]

Now that we’ve thought about some of the theological principles that are on display in this passage, we have to think about how it should direct our lives.

The first thing we should do is thank God for sending his Son. We should wonder and be thankful that Jesus would become a human being, to teach, to live a perfectly righteous life, and to die in our place. He does what we cannot and do not do. The whole message of Christianity could be summarized as “Christ for us.” Salvation is a free gift, and we should never think, “Be like Jesus in order to be acceptable to God.” We simply need to trust Jesus in order to be right with God.

If you’re here today and you don’t understand what it means to put your faith in Jesus, I would love to help you know more about it. But I will say this clearly: Jesus is the only God-man, the only mediator between God and sinful human beings. He is the only Savior. He is the only one who would leave his glorious position in heaven and descend to earth, to live humbly. He is the only God who would ever endure shame, pain, suffering, and death. He is the only one who lay down his life to pay for your sins. There is no other way to be right with God, to have eternal life, and to truly be wise than to know Jesus. And knowing Jesus starts simply with trusting him.

But we should also follow Jesus’ example. We should ask ourselves three questions: Are we about our Father’s business? Are we growing in wisdom? Are our priorities right?

Now, we can’t do all the work that Jesus did. We don’t need to. He had a very special mission, to save his people from sins. You or I cannot do that. Again, we don’t need to. Jesus already did the work. But we should be doing the work that God has called us to. He calls us to repent of our sins and put our trust in his Son. He calls us to worship him, to glorify him through everything we do, whether it’s part of a worship service, our service to the church, our love for our neighbor, or our obedience in all of life. We exist for God. We were made to reflect his glory and his attributes. Are you living for God or yourself? Are you representing God well?

Are we growing in wisdom? We should be growing in wisdom and knowledge (Col. 1:9). True wisdom and true knowledge starts with the fear of the Lord (Prov. 1:7; 9:10). That means we must understand who God is and we must respect him. And we must read the Bible and meditate on it. There are several resources to help you read the Bible that are available on our website and also on the table in the back of the room.[12] Take advantage of those resources. There are no excuses not to read the Bible. But understanding the Bible is more than reading it. It is doing the hard work of thinking about its meaning and understanding how it applies to our lives.

The first Psalm begins this way:

1  Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night (Ps. 1:1–2).

Jesus is the perfect example of a man who delights in God’s word and meditates on it day and night. He meditated on it and he acted according to it. That is what we are supposed to do. This comes only through work.

Finally, do we have prioritize things rightly? When we are truly following Jesus, there will be some people who don’t understand why we do the things we do, just as Mary didn’t understand why Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. When we are following God’s word, we’ll be accused falsely. People won’t like it when we don’t follow traditions, or conventional wisdom, or the prevailing opinions of the day. But we must follow Jesus. That may cause some tensions in our lives. We may feel torn between our service to the Lord and our work, or our service to the Lord and our obligations to our families. We must navigate these choppy waters with wisdom. But that wisdom is acquired only through faith, through reading God’s word and meditating on it, and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Let us endeavor to be wise, to rightly order our lives, and to be about our Father’s business.

Notes

  1. See “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas,” http://gnosis.org/library/inftoma.htm.
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 1:1–9:50, vol. 1, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 264.
  4. “ἐν τοῖς τοῦ πατρός μου.
  5. Mark Jones, Knowing Christ (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2015), 31.
  6. Mark Jones, Knowing Christ (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2015), 32.
  7. John S. Feinberg, “The Incarnation of Jesus Christ,” in In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History, ed. R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 234. Feinberg is here describing the view of Thomas V. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), 103. The quotation is Morris’s (also page 103).
  8. This idea comes from Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for the Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 525–526. Groothuis uses Michael Jordan in his hypothetical situation.
  9. See “Jesus Was a Man,” January 4, 2015, https://wbcommunity.org/jesus.
  10. Mark Jones, Knowing Christ (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2015), 51. Gregory’s quotation is found in “To Cledonius the Priest against Apollinarius,” in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow, vol. 7 (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 440. The full sentence is, “For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.”
  11. Augustine, Sermons 184–229 (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1993), 191.1, quoted in Mark Jones, Knowing Christ (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2015), 33–34.
  12. See https://wbcommunity.org/bible.

 

My Eyes Have Seen Your Salvation

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on December 31, 2017.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon, prepared in advance (see also below).

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.

2. Skydive.

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.[1]

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.”[2]

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).[3]

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.”[4]

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.[5]

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:

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.”
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.
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.[6]

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.

Notes

  1. https://www.bucketlist.net/ideas/#top10.
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1981), 161.
  4. Compare this dedication to 1 Samuel 1:22–28, when Hannah dedicated her son Samuel to the Lord’s service.
  5. “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.
  6. I have italicized some of the key words that connect that passage to this one.

 

My Eyes Have Seen Your Salvation (Luke 2:22-40)

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?