What is that light so brilliant, breaking
Here in the night across our eyes?
Never so bright, the daystar waking,
Started to climb the morning skies!
What is that light so brilliant, breaking
Here in the night across our eyes?
Psalms. Praises. Canticles. God’s gifts to His people to remind us of the many occasions he has provided salvation. We revisit as far back as the Exodus and we hear the Song of Moses and Miriam, exalting the power of the Lord as His people’s opponents with their the horses, chariots and riders were swallowed by the sea (Exodus 15). We go to the book of Judges and we hear the Song of Deborah about the defeat of Sisera and the rest (Judges 5). Throughout the annals of Scripture, the work of God is celebrated and sung, but there’s no more majestic compilation of such songs to be found than those rendered during the incarnation and infancy of our Lord. There’s the Magnificat of Mary, the Benedictus of Zacharias, and the Song of Simeon, called the Nunc dimittis. These great canticles are sometimes mentioned by their Latin titles, taken from the beginning words of the song, such as the Magnificat, where Mary says, “My soul doth mangify the Lord.”
In the Song of Simeon and his short episode in Luke chapter 2, he exemplifies the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In the Old Testament, the prophet Habakkuk mentioned that (Habakkuk 2:4) “the righteous shall live by his faith.” That almost passing statement buried in one of the books of the Jewish minor prophets was repeated three times in the New Testament (Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, Hebrews 10:38), and became a core tenet of Apostle Paul in his exposition of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. “The just shall live by faith” can be as accurately rendered as “the righteous shall live by trust.” To be just before God is to be righteous before God, and that is a righteousness which only he can provide. We find with Simeon a righteous man who trusted the Word of God — specifically, the promise of a Messiah, personally affirmed to him — and he did it not for a moment, but presumably during a long period of time. Simeon believed when nobody else among his contemporaries believed, that he would not die before he would see the Messiah come. He was indefatigable in his perseverance of trust in what God told him.
The first word of the Latin title for this song, nunc, means “now.” Simeon exalted, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word.” Let’s dwell on that word “now” because of how cogent it is in our day as the church works to rebut the wholesale attack on the reliability, trustworthiness and inspiration of Holy Writ. Coming out of the Enlightment of the 18th century, in Germany in the 19th century, we saw the rise of what was called “liberalism,” which preached a hypercritical view of Scripture, undermining all its supernatural references — including the virgin birth of Jesus, His miracles, His resurrection and ascension.
Of course, that movement did not end with the 19th century. In fact, at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, the prime minister of the Netherlands and the founder of the Free University of Amsterdam, Abraham Kuyper, said, “Biblical criticism has degenerated into biblical vandalism.” Vandalism, defined, is the violation disfigurement and destruction of what is of profound worth or scarcity. During the 20th century, the dominant higher critic of Europe was the New Testament scholar, Rudolf Bultmann, who developed an initiative called “a program to ‘de-mythologize’ the Bible.” Bultmann believed that the Bible was a mixture of a little bit of history and a whole lot of mythology. Bultmann essentially said that if you live in an age of electricity, radio, television, antibiotics and other so-called “miracle drugs,” you cannot, if you’re in your right mind, believe in a three-tiered universe with heaven above, earth here and hell underneath, and a world that is populated by angels and demons. Bultmann said that if the New Testament is to have any relevance to people in our day, it must be revised by the manner of “de-mythologizing” it, and coming with what he called an “existential approach” to Scripture.
In the mid-1960s, G.C. Berkhauer wrote in one of his volumes regarding Rudolf Bultmann, “Theology can sink no lower.” In retrospect, that statement is rather sanguine because theology has indeed slumped even lower than Bultmann, to the Jesus Seminar and the “Death of God” theologians. Bultmann’s goal as an interpreter of the Bible was to take Christianity out of the plane of history. His agenda was to cast the Christian faith as something that is not bound to historical events. He stated that we can’t even discover the historical Jesus and whatever we read in the New Testament can only be interpreted through the lens of mythology. He essentially stated, “About all we can be sure of historically is the faith of the early church. We can’t deny that there were people running around Palestine in the 1st century giving their lives for some kind of religious commitment to this person named Jesus. But it’s okay that we don’t have any real historical knowledge of Jesus because salvation is not a matter of history. It’s not a matter of space and time.” Using terms such as “supra-temporal,” Bultmann claimed that Christianity is something that exists out of time. His favorite expression to describe this notion was that Christianity is something that takes place in the hit et nunc, or the “here and now.”
The Nunc dimittis is driven by Simeon’s use of “now.” “Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not yesterday, Lord, but now, let your servant depart in peace.” The “now” of Simeon was radically different from the “now” of Bultmann. For thinkers such as Bultmann, salvation occurs in the hit et nunc, not horizontally in the plane of history, but vertically; Immediately, out of the sky, God hits you in the moment with His Word, and you have this existential experience which then begins to define your life. This is, at best, theologically inaccurate. God’s justification of His own may be momentary, but it is grounded in His election from before time began (II Timothy 1:9-10).
When Simeon said “now,” he didn’t mean it in a vertical, existential, mythological sense. He meant now chronologically, now historically, because he was convinced that the redemption that God was bringing to pass in that moment was not something that simply happened today, but was rooted and grounded in hundreds, indeed thousands of years of history. Simeon, a devout and knowledgeable Jewish temple worker, likely though back to the first proclamation of the gospel — a cryptic revelation ironically given in the context of a curse of Satan. In the garden of Eden, when the Lord placed His curse upon the serpent, he said that the seed of the woman would have His heel bruised by the seed of the serpent, but that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:14-15). Adam and Eve didn’t respond to the Lord by saying “Now? Today?” Of course not; God’s word would come to pass later. It would happen in space and time, but yet.
Through the progression of the whole Old Testament, from the promises given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to the sacrificial system instituted in the Old Testament, with the Day of Atonement, the tabernacle and all its accoutrements, God’s people were reminded of the future when God would visit the earth in the person of His Son: the Messiah. The people waited, prayed, hoped and went through the processes that the LORD had prescribed, all of them pointing beyond themselves to a future known in history when God personally would come to redeem His people. The Psalms of David look forward to that Messianic event, and David himself was thought by many perhaps to be the embodiment of Messiah. He was perhaps the greatest king Israel ever had, but his monarchy failed. But God spoke through the prophet to say that when the Messiah comes, David’s booth would be restored, its breaches repaired, and a King would sit on that throne forever (Amos 9:11-15). This coming Messiah would be David’s son and David’s Lord.
There were hundreds of prophecies throughout the Old Testament of the coming Messiah as the people waited. Isaiah said “the people who lived in darkness have seen a great light,” and he talked about one who would be born of a virgin, who would be a Wonderful Counselor, an Everlasting Father, a Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:2-7). And they waited. And they waited some more, until Micah came and said (Micah 5:2) “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” And on we go through the prophets, through Zechariah, and finally we get to the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi, where the prophet ends his oracle, (Malachi 4:2) “for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.” With that, the Old Testament closes, and God does not speak audibly to anyone for 400 years. Though other great works of God were recorded during that intertestamental period, the people began to lose hope. They began to think, “This promise that we’ve heard about a coming redeemer, a Messiah, hasn’t happened in more than 2,000 years. Why invest your hope in that?”
But God the Holy Spirit revealed to this man, Simeon, who we assume was advanced in years, that he would not die until he saw the face of the promised Messiah. “He was just and devout and waiting for the consolation of Israel.” The Consolation is derived from parakletos, or the Greek word for an advocate, a comforter, a giver of support. It’s also a synonym for the Messiah, the Lord’s Christ who comes to console, to heal the wounded, assuage the brokenhearted and give hope to the hopeless. We don’t know at what point in Simeon’s life the Holy Spirit revealed to him that he wouldn’t die until he saw the Christ — it could have been the day before this event took place. But the text seems to imply the promise was made to Simeon years and years prior — not very different than when God promised Abraham that in his old age, while his wife was infertile, that she would conceive and bear a son, at a hundred years old. But it didn’t happen the next month, or the next year, or within the next five years. Abraham and Sarah, who laughed at the idea of Isaac, nonetheless had heard from the Almighty, and were made to wait. Abraham at least trusted, hoped against hope, and put his confidence in the Word of God — not in what his eyes said to him. Centuries later, the same Spirit of God revealed to a man of Jerusalem, “Simeon, you’re not going to die until you see for yourself the Lord’s Christ, the Consolation of Israel.” And like Abraham before him, Luke tells us, Simeon waited.
Finally, in space and time, in Jerusalem, a real historical city, he went into the temple, as he did every day, and the parents brought in the child Jesus to do according to the custom of the law. There was nothing remarkable about this young couple; they modestly brought pair of pigeons to be sacrificed because they couldn’t afford a lamb. Yet Simeon knew this was no ordinary case, and he took up the child in his arms and blessed God and sang this song, “Now! Now, Lord, let your servant depart in peace. I’ve seen him. I’ve looked into his face. This time when I came, and I saw that man and I saw that woman with a baby in their arms, I looked into the face of the child, and I said, ‘It’s him. The Consolation of Israel. He’s here.'”
Anyone reading the story should have a question at this point. Jesus probably didn’t have the word MESSIAH stamped on His forehead. Just how did Simeon know that this particular baby at this particular time in this particular space was God incarnate?
Seven years before “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon entitled “A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God, Shown to be Both Scriptural and Rational Doctrine.” (Authors in the 18th century trying to reach people obviously did not have to worry about character limits or SEO.) That sermon was an exposition of the Caesarea-Philippi convention of Peter recorded in Matthew 16, where the disciples were with Jesus in Caeserea-Philippi, and Jesus quizzed them, “All right, you’re out and about, mingling with these crowds of people that are following me all over the place. What are they saying about me? Who do they think I am?” And one of them goes, “Oh, they think you’re John the Baptist come back, or you’re Elijah or Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” He said, “Fine. Who do you say that I am?” Simon answered, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus answered, “And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
Jesus pronounced His supreme benediction on this disciple. Peter had been given the zenith of all divine revelation: the identity of Jesus Christ. He explained why Peter was blessed, because “flesh and blood did not reveal this to you. You didn’t just follow me along and attend the wedding feast of Canaan, see me turn dirty water into wine, and see me walk on water, heal paralytics, lepers and blind men, and somehow come to the logical conclusion that I must be God incarnate. You didn’t come to that place through simple deduction or mere intellectual contemplation or empirical observation. You’re blessed because you recognize me by divine revelation.” It’s what Edwards called “a divine and supernatural light.”
When Simeon looked into the child’s face, he did not recognize this baby as the Christ child because he beheld a transfigured countenance. The baby obviously did not speak it to him. He looked at this child in the arms of His parents, and by the divine and supernatural light of God, he knew he was looking into the face of Christ. That’s when Simeon said, “Now. I don’t have to wait around for him to astound the experts of the law in the temple when he’s 12, I don’t need to see him roam around Judea with a blaze of miracles his wake, I don’t have to watch him suffer on the Cross or be raised from the dead. I’ve seen all I need to see. So let me go home. Let me depart in peace.”
The same divine and supernatural light that opened the eyes of Simeon to recognize the Christ, takes the blinders off our eyes, opens our ears and changes our hearts of stone to hearts of flesh, so we see the divine and the supernatural light (II Peter 1:19-21).
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
Joseph and Mary watched this, listened to the song, and were mesmerized. Simeon then pronounced a benediction upon them, “Blessed are you, Mary and Joseph.” And with the blessing came the warning, “Behold, this child is appointed, from the foundation of the world, for the fall of many in Israel – but also the rising of many for a sign that will be spoken against him. Yes, Mary, a sword will pierce through your own soul as well, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
We’re told by Luke that Mary pondered these things. She kept them in her heart. Did any doubt or thought go through her mind when she stood at the base of the Cross and watched her son have his side pierced with a sword? Did she feel that viscerally, not symbolically? Perhaps she remembered the venerable old man in the temple saying this was going to happen. Tears are streaming down my face as I picture the scene in my mind’s eye. Because of that event, we now among the living can celebrate each Christmas, “this is the time when the Sun of Righteousness arose with healing in his wings.”
Unlike Simeon, we have not yet seen Jesus face-to-face, but we are profoundly blessed because we have not seen and yet believed (John 20:29). Like the venerable Simeon, we eagerly anticipate the appearance of the Lord promised to us — the parousia, his second coming to earth in the flesh (I Thessalonians 5:23-24, Hebrews 9:28). As another 2,000 years have passed since that promise of Christ’s coming has made, there has been attrition in the visible church, just as there was in ancient Israel, as to the belief that he will ever come. At that second advent, it will be in such a refulgent display, there will be no one confused about his identity (Psalm 110:1, Colossians 3:4, II Thessalonians 1:7-10, Revelation 1:7, 19:15). God’s people live every day with the word maranatha on our lips, sometimes in a triumphant praise and sometimes as a faint whisper, living in the light of the knowledge that he can come at any time. We are called to be ready when he comes, we know no other way to live, and once he does return, we’ll know we will have seen everything on this earth that we need to see. In space and time, we echo Simeon, “Lord, perhaps today.”
After expositing Luke chapter 2 at the recent Ligonier Ministries Christmas Gathering, R.C. Sproul offered the prayer, “Our Father and our God, in this Christmas season, help us to understand that to know Jesus is to be most blessed of people. May we see his light and his glory as we wait even now for that day when we can see his face before ours. And we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.”
And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love,
For that Child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord in Heav’n above,
And He leads His children on
To the place where He is gone.