The very first time John the Baptizer encountered Jesus the Messiah, he recognized him. John was six months in the womb of his mother Elizabeth at the time. Jesus was a mere flicker of cells in Mary’s womb. Do you remember the story?
It was the angel Gabriel who gave Mary the news. “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end. … The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.” (Luke 1:26ff)
Mary lived in Nazareth in Galilee. Her elderly cousin Elizabeth lived in the hill country of Judea. After a lifetime of childlessness, Elizabeth was also experiencing a miraculous pregnancy. She and her husband Zachariah were to become the parents of John the Baptizer.
As soon as the initial shock of the angel’s visit wore off, Mary packed up and went to visit, perhaps seeking the company of the one woman in the world who might understand and sympathize with her situation.
Mary arrived at the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth. She entered. She greeted Elizabeth. Luke writes that “when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb.” (Luke 1:41) Immediate recognition!
Then, Luke writes, the Holy Spirit nudged Elizabeth, and she exclaimed in a loud voice, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” (Luke 1:42-43) Immediate recognition!
Remember: they didn’t have phones or faxes or emails back then. Elizabeth didn’t know that Mary was coming, and she certainly did not know Mary’s remarkable news. Not yet born, John recognized his younger cousin—the one who would be greater than him even though he came after him. Given insight by the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth recognized him too. Immediate recognition.
So what does this all have to do with Simeon and Anna and the trip to the temple when Jesus was six weeks old?
It has to do with recognition. In the temple that day, Simeon recognized Jesus and Anna recognized Jesus…immediately.
That’s not something that happened very often.
In the womb, John had perfect radar for the presence of the Lord. The thirty-something John the Baptizer—the one who dressed in camel’s hair, ate locusts and wild honey, and baptized people for the forgiveness of sins—had a little more trouble recognizing Jesus. At one point, he even sent two of his followers to inquire of Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Luke 7:19)
John knew who Jesus was. He was the one who baptized Jesus. He was there when a voice came from heaven, saying about Jesus: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well-pleased.” (Luke 3:22) Still, even John had days when he had trouble recognizing Jesus.
The folks from Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth had a terrible time recognizing Jesus. Oh, they knew what he looked like, of course. Maybe that was the problem. They knew him too well. They knew him as Joseph and Mary’s boy. They remembered him playing in the fields with their boys. They remembered seeing him in the carpentry shop learning Joseph’s trade. They remembered him attending the village synagogue. They knew him so well that they had a terrible time recognizing Jesus for who he was—the Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior, the Redeemer, the Lord.
When Jesus announced his ministry in Nazareth, the people rejected him. (Luke 4:14ff) When he visited later, they took offense at him. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers? Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” Jesus did few miracles in his hometown because they had so little faith. (Matthew 13:53ff)
Even the disciples—Jesus’ inner circle of friends and followers—had a hard time recognizing Jesus. Again and again, Jesus explained to them who he was and what was to happen, and still they never quite got it. Even when Peter made his amazing pronouncement—“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”—he still didn’t get it. Moments later he rebuked Jesus for talking of suffering and dying. (Luke 9:18ff) Even Peter sometimes had trouble recognizing Jesus.
After Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples began to get it. After Jesus’ ascension, they understood a little more. But it was really only after Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit among them and within them that the disciples finally really recognized Jesus.
Then, of course, there were the religious leaders of Jerusalem. They saw Jesus as a troublesome rabble-rouser. They really didn’t recognize Jesus for who he really was. In Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, he writes that “none of the rulers of this age understood [Jesus], for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (1 Corinthians 2:8)
Not many recognized Jesus right away.
Aside from the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth, only Simeon and Anna recognized Jesus. In the temple that day they saw a six-week-old infant held in a young mother’s arms, and they recognized the Light of the world, the one who would be Savior and Redeemer.
What is it about Simeon and Anna that enabled them to recognize Jesus?
We aren’t given a lot of information about Simeon and Anna.
Simeon lived in Jerusalem. He was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel. The Holy Spirit was upon him. Scripture doesn’t tell us how old Simeon is, but it seems to suggest that he has seen his share of years go by. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ—the Anointed One of God. He was in the temple that day because the Holy Spirit nudged him to go there.
Anna was a prophetess. She was the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She was in the temple that day because she was always in the temple. She worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.
The first thing to notice is that Simeon and Anna recognized Jesus because the Holy Spirit revealed him to them.
The name Simeon means ‘the one who hears’ or ‘the one who obeys’. (‘Hear’ and ‘obey’ are the same word in Hebrew.) That day, Simeon obeyed the leading of the Holy Spirit and went to the temple. With the Holy Spirit upon him, he recognized the baby in Mary’s arms as the one he had been long awaiting.
Hmmm… It was the Holy Spirit who nudged Elizabeth into recognizing the unborn Savior, too.
What’s the Holy Spirit doing here, you ask? This is years and years before Pentecost. I thought the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost…?
Yes, the Holy Spirit did come at Pentecost. Following Jesus’ ascension, the Holy Spirit came to dwell within followers of Jesus—to take up residence in our hearts and to form us together into the Body of Christ, the Church.
But the Holy Spirit was not new at Pentecost.
At the dawn of creation, the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters. In the Book of Exodus, it is told that the Spirit of God specially gifted certain artisans for the constructing of the Ark of the Covenant. During the time of the judges, before Israel had a king, the Spirit of the Lord came upon certain individuals that they might be empowered for leadership. Throughout the Old Testament there are references to the Spirit of God inspiring prophecy. In Psalm 51, David pleads with God, “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.” The prophet Isaiah, in chapter 63, notes that God’s people “rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit.”
After Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came to dwell within believers and to bind us to Christ. Before and after Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was and is free to come upon certain people at particular times for particular purposes.
The Holy Spirit came upon Elizabeth so that she might recognize the one for whom the babe in her womb was leaping.
The Holy Spirit came upon Simeon so that he might recognize the babe in Mary’s arms.
Luke does not explain in detail how Anna came to recognize the baby, but there is sufficient evidence to warrant the involvement of the Holy Spirit here too. Anna was a prophetess. Prophets become prophets because of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Anna spent all of her time, night and day, in the temple worshiping God, praying and fasting. Anna was well-trained in listening for the Spirit of God and undistracted by the things of this world. To eyes not given special insight, the babe in Mary’s arms was no different from any other child brought to the temple any other day. It is reasonable to conclude that Anna recognized Jesus because the Holy Spirit revealed him to her.
It is still by the Holy Spirit that people recognize Jesus. In First Corinthians, after Paul notes that the rulers of this age did not understand Jesus, he goes on to write: “It is written: ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him’ but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 2:9-10)
Later in the same Letter, before elaborating on the spiritual gifts, Paul writes: “I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say. ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:3)
The second thing to notice is that scripture paved the way for the recognition of Jesus.
Simeon quotes scripture extensively in his short speech. Simeon took Jesus into his arms and praised God, saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Isreal.” Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
There is an allusion to Isaiah 40, which is the scripture that John the Baptizer identified as referring to him. “A voice of one calling: ‘In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, and the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it.” (Isaiah 40:3-5)
There is also an allusion to Isaiah 42:6. “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles.”
And there is an allusion to Isaiah 8:14. “He will be a sanctuary; but for both houses of Israel he will be a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.”
God did not send Jesus into the world unannounced. Long before the angels made their glorious announcement to the shepherds that first Christmas night, God had been promising his people a Savior. Throughout the prophetic writings, the promise is affirmed and reaffirmed. Throughout the prophetic writings, hints are given as to what to look for.
A virgin who will be with child, and a baby who shall be called Immanuel. … (Isaiah 7:14)
Out of Bethlehem shall come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel. … (Micah 5:2)
In the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. … (Isaiah 9:1-2)
For to us a child is born, to us a child is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. … (Isaiah 9:6-7)
From Isaiah 42, one of the chapters that Simeon alludes to, comes this: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.” (Isaiah 42:1-8)
The third thing to notice is that recognition of the baby Jesus is all wrapped up in recognition of the mission of the man Jesus…the One who came not only to teach and heal, but also to suffer and die, that we might live.
Simeon’s words to Mary are the first hint in this gospel of the suffering of Jesus.
Anna, too, knew that this baby was the one to bring redemption to Jerusalem. In other words, this baby was the one who would redeem all God’s people.
The reason Mary and Joseph were at the temple that day was to provide for the ritual sacrifice of a pair of doves or two young pigeons that would redeem their firstborn son. Even the ritual redemption of the firstborn required the shedding of blood. How much more does the Redemption of a fallen creation require the shedding of the Redeemer’s blood.
One of the reasons Christmas is such a popular holiday is that it is such a happy one. Many people, not necessarily Christian, love to celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus. Many more people celebrate Christmas than celebrate Good Friday and Easter. But Christmas is just the beginning. The babe born at Christmas will suffer and die on Good Friday. And he will be raised again on Easter, so that death will be defeated.
The fourth thing to notice is that the person of Jesus brings about division. “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.”
The division that Jesus brings is not between Jews and Gentiles. Even here it is made clear that the salvation God sends in Jesus is for all people…a light of revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to the Jews.
The division that Jesus brings is between those who come to recognize him, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and those who refuse to recognize him. The division is between those who stumble on this Rock and those who stand on this Rock.
This Christmas, look at the babe in Mary’s arms and know that he is the Light of the world, the Savior, the Redeemer, the Lord.
This Christmas, look at the babe in Mary’s arms and know that he came to live for you, he came to die for you, he came to be raised for you, he came that he might reign in power for you, he came so that he might intercede for you—day and night—before the Father.
This Christmas, look at the babe in Mary’s arms and know that he is the Light of the world, your Savior, your Redeemer, your Lord.
This Christmas, look at the babe in Mary’s arms, and don’t look away until you recognize him.