One of my greatest joys as a writing pastor is that every year I am obliged to spend several weeks focusing on the two most earth-changing events in history–the birth of Jesus Christ, and his death and resurrection. You cannot make sense of one without the other. I’m currently working on a Lenten Narrative to follow last year’s Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative. With the season of Lent starting this week, I thought I’d offer here a chapter from Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative that looks at the incarnation of Jesus through the lens of his purpose for coming: to defeat the death I deserve and raise me to newness of life with him in his resurrection.
Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative
Chapter 24: The Hearts of Many Revealed
The old man was a member of the old guard, the last of a generation of faithful ministers in Jerusalem’s temple. He was something of a fixture—the kind of man who seemed to have always been there. It was hard to say whether Simeon smelled like the temple or the temple smelled like Simeon, but the minds of those who passed him in the street would often drift to notions of smoke and blood and a guilty resolve to attend to their worship more regularly.
The old guard to which he belonged was on a permanent watch. They were waiting for something in particular, something unique, something wonderful. The years had taught Simeon patience, so he was good at waiting. Still, he felt an unrelenting sense of urgency. He always had. He was waiting for the consolation of his people Israel. He had been waiting a long time, and his people even longer.
They were a nation of sorrows, acquainted with grief. They were despised, afflicted by God. They were wounded. They’d been crushed. They were like sheep that were better at getting lost than staying near their shepherd. And they needed consolation.
God would send it. And when he did, Simeon would be at his post, watching and waiting, poised to respond. This was his life’s work. Simeon was a case study in the benefits of careful examination and devotion to the word of God. He was devout—a description best reserved for the aged. He knew how to want what God had promised. He knew how to delight in God’s goodness. And he knew how to wait.
He worked in the temple because he believed God was near. He knew God was near. He knew this because God had visited him, telling him he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. (Lk 2:26) And at his age, it would have to be soon.
Joseph and Mary were young, but they were believers. The generations before had taught them well. They journeyed to the temple for two reasons, both ancient—Mary’s ritual purification after childbirth and the redemption of their firstborn son from the Lord.
Why did they need to redeem their son? Because God said in his law, “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.” (Ex 13:1)
The consecration of the firstborn son was much more than a shallow routine asking God to give the child a long and happy life. They were recalling their history of slavery and deliverance from Egypt, where God traded the blood of a lamb for the blood of their firstborn sons—a life for a life.
This was the basis of God’s claim that the firstborn sons belonged to him. When the parents accepted the sacrifice of the lamb on their son’s behalf, they forfeited their son’s life to God, along with every generation that would flow from him. From that point on, when any first son was born to a descendant of those families, the parents brought that boy to the temple to present him to God because he belonged to God. The parents presented the boy in order to purchase his release and buy him back. (Ex 13:13-15)
Joseph and his wife answered the call of their ancient faith to observe the rite of purification for Mary and to redeem their son. Dark flecks of iron-scented blood spattered Mary’s garments as the priest sprinkled her. Stained now with the fresh blood of her sacrifice, she was pronounced clean by the priest.
Then she and her husband took up their boy. It was time to purchase his release with more blood. As they moved toward the place where he would be redeemed, they passed an old man with searching eyes and purpose in his step.
He clearly belonged in the temple. He looked official. He smelled official. But as he drew near, they could hear him mumbling. He reached for the child. Mary, surprised but willing, handed over the boy.
Simeon’s joyful hope was in the promise of a glimpse of the Christ, but God had something better in mind. Simeon actually got to hold him. This mumbling member of the old guard took this new life into his arms as his words rose to a cry of praise.
“O Lord, my God! Father of all blessing and honor and praise, you have been so good to your servant. You have been so good to your servant! I’m an old man, my days have been long, but I’m your son. And today, you have blessed me. I can’t believe how good you’ve been! Do you see this boy? Do you see him? Because I see him, Father. And what’s more, I know who he is. As surely as I live and breathe, I’m holding in my arms the Redeemer. With my very eyes I’m beholding your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of a dark but watching world. He will be the light by which the Gentiles will see you and come to know you. He will be the light by which your people Israel will again see the glory of how you have loved them with a love that will not let them go. O great and glorious King, Shepherd of My Soul, Captain of My Guard, I have kept my post. I have not turned my eyes from the horizon because you have promised that your Messiah would come on my watch. And I have seen him. I have held him. I have kissed him. Now I can die in peace. So honorably retire your watchman, O great and glorious King, and bring me home.” (Lk 2:29-32)
Joseph and Mary were speechless. They weren’t expecting Simeon, and his blessing wasn’t the standard fare. Most blessings were marked by warm petitions for success in life, but Simeon’s wasn’t a petition at all. It was a proclamation. He wasn’t asking for what might be. He was declaring what was. Every word spoke to this child’s purpose. There was something this child had come to do. They had brought Jesus to this place to redeem him, but before them stood a man proclaiming that this baby would, in fact, redeem them.
As his words sank in, Mary and Joseph marveled at what he had said. This moment was a meeting of hearts. For Simeon, the white-hot coal burning in him was finally exposed and began to die out. This was a happy moment.
But his smile faded. The joy never left his eyes, but gravity pulled at his countenance. He grew serious. There was more to say because there was more to this little life than met the eye. All that Simeon had said so far was about what Jesus would do. Now it was time to broach the subject of how he would do it.
Simeon had a sense of what awaited Jesus. He told Mary a truth she must have already sensed: that Jesus would turn this world on its ear—and it would come at a great cost. Her baby would facilitate the ruin of many in Israel. Like a stump from Jesse’s root, he would jut out and break the toes of any who dared tread upon the purpose for which he had come. Jesus would reveal the hearts of all mankind. The light of the world would shine in every dark corner of every dark heart, exposing every dark secret. And this was a world that had grown quite fond of darkness. It was no surprise that he would be opposed. (Lk 2:34)
He told her all these things, but she couldn’t help suspecting that he was holding something back. There was something else on his mind. Something less general, more pointed—pointed at her.
And she was right. He had something to say, something that would hurt. But it had to be said, and he was the one appointed to say it. Simeon leveled his wrinkled face to look directly into the young mother’s eyes.
“Mary, what awaits your son will be like a sword that will pierce through your soul.” (Lk 2:35)
If Mary kept things spoken about Jesus in her heart, this must have been one of them. A sword would pierce her soul. It was the price of being the mother of the Christ. She had to raise this baby, knowing that he belonged to the Maker and had come for the purpose of saving God’s people from their sin. Everything in her culture told her that sin offerings were a bloody business. And thirty-three years later, she would find herself at the foot of the cross on which her son hung. With her own two eyes, she would watch him die, despised and rejected, a man of sorrows acquainted with grief. (Isa 53:3, Jn 19:16-27)
If her son was the salvation of Israel, then he was her savior too. Later, when he was a man, she must have thought about the way he talked of God’s salvation. The way he spoke with such authority. “No one takes my life from me. But I lay it down of my own accord. And I alone have God’s authority to lay it down and his authority to take it up again. This is why he sent me.” (Jn 10:18)
There was purpose behind everything her son ever did. It was in his words. It was in his ways. It even seemed that he hung on that cross because he meant to.
Her son wasn’t simply dying. He was doing something.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).