Exegesis of Luke 2:21-35
21 When the eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus—the name given by the angel before he was conceived. 22 And when the days of their purification according to the law of Moses were finished, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (just as it is written in the law of the Lord, Every firstborn male will be dedicated to the Lord,) 24 and to offer a sacrifice (according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,).
25 There was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, looking forward to Israel’s consolation, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he saw the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, he entered the temple. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him up in his arms, praised God, and said,
29 Now, Master,
you can dismiss your servant in peace,
as you promised.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation.
31 You have prepared it
in the presence of all peoples—
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory to your people Israel.
33 His father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and told his mother Mary, “Indeed, this child is destined to cause the fall and rise of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed—35 and a sword will pierce your own soul—that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” 
Although there are endless interpretations form the passage, here are two that struck me:
- Where in Jesus’ timeline did this event happen?
Vss. 21-22 are portraying two separate events 33 days apart. First, in vs. 21, Jesus’ circumcision was performed eight days after his birth. This event is in fulfillment of the Levitical obligation in Leviticus 12:3. Although the location of the circumcision is not provided, there is a reference to the angelic message Mary received in Luke 1:31 and Joseph received in Matthew 1:20 concerning the name of the child – Jesus. Both Mary and Joseph were obedient to God’s direction to name the boy Ἰησοῦς Iēsous (Greek) יְהוֹשֻׁעַ yᵉhôšua (Hebrew), which is translated as YHWH saves in both languages.
Vs. 22 continues with the purification ceremony at the Temple in Jerusalem. This ceremony is in obedience to Leviticus 12:1-8, which directs a woman after giving birth to isolate for 40 days (7 days and then the circumcision and then another 33 days). Mary and Joseph would have either brought a year-old male lamb and a young pigeon or a turtledove for an offering. Mary and Joseph, due to their situation, took advantage of the provision of two pigeons or turtledoves instead of the lamb (vs. 24).
Therefore, the circumcision was 33 days before the scene with Simeon. Jesus would be 40 days old, and his dedication would have taken place at the same time. The family would more than likely still be residing in Bethlehem. Because of Mary’s isolation and the distance, traveling back to Nazareth would have been a rough go. The offering at the temple was twofold. One offering was for the end of Mary’s period of uncleanliness after childbirth. And the second would be for Jesus as the first born male (Exodus 22:28). Because God had drawn them to Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth, and thus had to stay for at least 40 days according to the law, this set the scene perfectly for the family to go to the temple in Jerusalem (near Bethlehem) and have their encounter with Simeon (and Anna Luke 2:36-38).
- What was the relationship between Simeon and the Holy Spirit?
Luke starts vs. 25 with an introduction of Simeon. He states that Simeon is righteous (δίκαιος dikaios – upright in character, proper standards and actions), devout (εὐλαβής eulabēs – God-fearing), waiting for the consolation (παράκλησις paraklēsis – encourage, comfort), and was filled with the Holy Spirit. Vs. 26 reveals that Simeon was given a prophetic message that he would indeed lay eyes on the Messiah. This fact indicates that Simeon had an intense and very personal relationship with YHWH so that the Holy Spirit was present with him – a rarity in the Old Covenant.
This deep relationship with YHWH is expressed again in vs. 27, where Simeon is “moved by the Spirit” to go to the Temple. Going to the Temple was probably not an unusual thing for Simeon. But the Holy Spirit drew him to Mary and Joseph. When seeing their child, Jesus, he realized why he was there, and the consummation of a long past promise fulfilled. With joy, Simeon prophesied that he could enter into eternity now that the promise of witnessing the Messiah had been fulfilled. Further filled with the prophetic Holy Spirit, Simeon then spoke a word to Mary, telling her about the ministry and the suffering Mary would endure while witnessing the fulfillment of the Messiah’s mission.
Looking at the story of Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and Simeon, we see a family and a devoted man destined to cross paths. The key is the theme of waiting. Mary and Joseph stayed in Bethlehem for 40 days while Mary ceremonially recovered from her childbirth. Simeon was given a prophecy in his younger days, and now, as an older man, he was coming to see that promise fulfilled. Waiting is something we 21st century Americans have a hard time with. We want instant comfort, instant food, instant pleasure. Not very much about God is instant. God works in His own completely perfect time.
When God gives us a promise, He usually doesn’t have it come to pass right away. A problem usually follows his promises. That problem seems to inhibit the fulfillment of the promise. Why would God do this? Why would he make Mary and Joseph wait it out far from home in Bethlehem? Why would God make Simeon wait many years for the promise to be fulfilled? These problems and the problems we face when God gives us a promise are genuine. The key is that God wants us to grow in dependency on Him. Simeon utterly depended on God and had an intimate relationship with Him. He endured the problem because he was growing in a relationship with the Almighty. However, with every problem, God provides a provision.
The provision is a fulfillment of the promise through the problem. We grow in the problem because we learn to be utterly dependant upon God for provision. Sometimes (most times?) when we try to overcome the problem independently, the provision gets delayed. Trying to solve what God is planning to do with our strength and resources usually makes matters worse. Mary, Joseph, and Simeon were all waiting upon the Lord. Because of that, all of them witnessed the provision of the Messiah, Jesus.
Summary and Review
- Summary – Luke 2:21-35 is one of the few passages that have a glimpse into Jesus’ childhood. Luke provides the most detail while Matthew offers a few glimpses into events in Jesus’ childhood (Mat. 2:1-23). Luke starts this section with Jesus’ circumcision eight days after His birth. This scene leads immediately to the Temple’s scene 33 days later, where the duel offerings of cleansing for Mary and Jesus as the firstborn son. According to Liefeld: “Luke, conflating the performance of these OT obligations into this single narrative shows how Jesus was reared in conformity with them. His parents obeyed the Lord (1:31) in naming him. The offering of birds instead of a lamb shows that he was born into a low-income family. Perhaps this helped him identify with the poor of the land.”
The scene then moves to focus on Simeon. God promised Simeon that he would see the Messiah before he passed to eternity. Luke continually emphasizes the Holy spirit’s presence in Simeon’s life. Morris reflects that: “The Holy Spirit was upon (Simeon), which seems to mean on him continually. In Old Testament times, we read of the Spirit coming upon people on special occasions‚ but a continuing presence is rare. Simeon’s endowment was something special.” The presence of the Holy Spirit led Simeon to the Temple and Jesus. He recognized Jesus as Messianic and in the act of ecstatic joy prophesied through a prophetic song. The use of νῦν nun meaning “now” emphasizes that Messiah has now arrived, and Simeon can now come to the end of his life.
The scene finishes with Simeon prophesying to the bewildered parents. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Simeon declares that Jesus will be a disrupter and his life will break Mary’s heart.
- Critical Assessment – In looking at this passage, it is an exciting glimpse into a few different areas. First, it is a glimpse into Jesus’ early childhood. As mentioned above, there are only a few narratives of Jesus before he began his ministry at age 30. Second, this also provides a glimpse into first-century spiritual life. The commentaries reviewed for this exegesis did not link the circumcision / purity offering / firstborn offering to the narrative of Simeon. This writer believes that understanding these Jewish rituals set the stage for Simeon’s role. The parents’ obedience to Jewish custom is an essential piece of the entire narrative of Jesus, the perfect Jew.
The Temple itself is crucial. Jesus will eventually have much activity in the Temple, and this first introduction to Jesus in the Temple foreshadows his future ministry. As Tannehill states, “The location is one of several examples of significant settings which enhance major scenes (see Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue in Luke 4:16-30; the temple and the chambers of the Sanhedrin in Acts 3-5; Paul in the agora of Athens and before the Areopagus in Acts 17:16-34).”
- Reactions and questions and application – Diving into this passage has opened my eyes wider to the life of First Century Jews. The dedication to a religious ceremony by all the characters in this scene fills me with awe. I have to take time to reflect on Mary and Joseph, so far from home, in a 40-day quarantine, then going to the Temple to offer sacrifices for Jesus as the firstborn and for their cleansing after giving birth. This kind of dedication is lost upon the 21st-century modern mind. We see religious ritual as either a source of guilt because we don’t do it enough or do it wrong, or as a nuisance that keeps people stuck in a false sense of works salvation. True, the legalistic observation of religious law is what got the Pharisees in trouble with Jesus. But with the family, it seems to be different. Religious ceremonies and obligations are done out of love and submission to God, not as a way to earn salvation or follow a legalistic rule.
In my application above, I described God’s pattern of promise, problem, and provision. This application is relevant to 21st century Christians. We see the pattern all over the Bible, but we also see it in our own lives. As I get older, I stand firm on God’s promises. I stand on these promises not with a “wishful thinking” kind of faith but with a faith steeped in history, both ancient and modern. The Bible, and this passage, and my own life demonstrate the evidence that God will carry me through the problem to realize his promise in his provision.
 Walter L. Liefeld, “Luke,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), 849.
 Leon Morris, Luke: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 3, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 104.
 Liefeld, 849.
 Robert Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation, Vol. 1: The Gospel According to Luke (Philadelphia, PA; Fortress Press, 1986) Kindle Edition, location 621-623.