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Bible Commentaries

J. C. Ryle's Expository Thoughts on the Gospels

Luke 2

Verses 1-7

WE have, in these verses, the story of a birth,—the birth of the incarnate Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. Every birth of a living child is a marvelous event. It brings into being a soul that will never die. But never since the world began was a birth so marvelous as the birth of Christ. In itself it was a miracle:—"God was manifest in the flesh." (1 Timothy 3:16.) The blessings it brought into the world were unspeakable:—it opened to man the door of everlasting life.

In reading these verses, let us first notice the times when Christ was born. It was in the days when Augustus, the first Roman emperor, made "a decree that all the world should be taxed."

The wisdom of God appears in this simple fact. The scepter was practically departing from Judah. (Genesis 49:10.) The Jews were coming under the dominion and taxation of a foreign power. Strangers were beginning to rule over them. They had no longer a really independent government of their own. The "due time" had come for the promised Messiah to appear. Augustus taxes "the world," and at once Christ is born.

It was a time peculiarly suitable for the introduction of Christ’s Gospel. The whole civilized earth was at length governed by one master. (Daniel 2:40.) There was nothing to prevent the preacher of a new faith going from city to city, and country to country. The princes and priests of the heathen world had been weighed in the balances and found wanting. Egypt, and Assyria, and Babylon, and Persia, and Greece, and Rome, had all successively proved that "the world by wisdom knew not God." (1 Corinthians 1:21.) Notwithstanding their mighty conquerors, and poets, and historians, and architects, and philosophers, the kingdoms of the world were full of dark idolatry. It was indeed "due time" for God to interpose from heaven, and send down an almighty Savior. It was "due time" for Christ to be born. (Romans 5:6.)

Let us ever rest our souls on the thought, that times are in God’s hand. (Psalms 31:15.) He knows the best season for sending help to His church, and new light to the world. Let us beware of giving way to over anxiety about the course of events around us, as if we knew better than the King of kings what time relief should come. "Cease, Philip, to try to govern the world," was a frequent saying of Luther to an anxious friend. It was a saying full of wisdom.

Let us notice, secondly, the place where Christ was born. It was not at Nazareth of Galilee, where His mother, Mary, lived. The prophet Micah had foretold that the event was to take place at Bethlehem. (Micah 5:2.) And so it came to pass. At Bethlehem Christ was born.

The overruling providence of God appears in this simple fact. He orders all things in heaven and earth. He turns the hearts of kings whithersoever He will. He overruled the time when Augustus decreed the taxing. He directed the enforcement of the decree in such a way, that Mary must needs be at Bethlehem when "the days were accomplished that she should be delivered." Little did the haughty Roman emperor, and his officer Cyrenius, think that they were only instruments in the hand of the God of Israel, and were only carrying out the eternal purposes of the King of kings. Little did they think that they were helping to lay the foundation of a kingdom, before which the empires of this world would all go down one day, and Roman idolatry pass away. The words of Isaiah, upon a like occasion, should be remembered, "He meaneth not so, neither doth his heart think so." (Isaiah 10:7.)

The heart of a believer should take comfort in the recollection of God’s providential government of the world. A true Christian should never be greatly moved or disquieted by the conduct of the rulers of the earth. He should see with the eye of faith a hand overruling all that they do to the praise and glory of God. He should regard every king and potentate,—an Augustus, a Cyrenius, a Darius, a Cyrus, a Sennacherib,—as a creature who, with all his power, can do nothing but what God allows, and nothing which is not carrying out God’s will. And when the rulers of this world "set themselves against the Lord," he should take comfort in the words of Solomon, "There be higher than they." (Ecclesiastes 5:8.)

Let us notice, lastly, the manner in which Christ was born. He was not born under the roof of His mother’s house, but in a strange place, and at an "inn." When born, He was not laid in a carefully prepared cradle. He was "laid in a manger, because there was no room in the inn."

We see here the grace and condescension of Christ. Had He come to save mankind with royal majesty, surrounded by His Father’s angels, it would have been an act of undeserved mercy. Had He chosen to dwell in a palace, with power and great authority, we should have had reason enough to wonder. But to become poor as the very poorest of mankind, and lowly as the very lowliest,—this is a love that passeth knowledge. It is unspeakable and unsearchable. Never let us forget that through this humiliation Jesus has purchased for us a title to glory. Through His life of suffering, as well as His death, He has obtained eternal redemption for us. All through His life He was poor for our sakes, from the hour of His birth to the hour of His death. And through His poverty we are made rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9.)

Let us beware of despising the poor, because of their poverty. Their condition is one which the Son of God has sanctified and honored, by taking it voluntarily on Himself. God is no respecter of persons. He looks at the hearts of men, and not at their incomes. Let us never be ashamed of the cross of poverty, if God thinks fit to lay it upon us. To be godless and covetous is disgraceful, but it is no disgrace to be poor. A mean dwelling place, and coarse food, and a hard bed, are not pleasing to flesh and blood. But they are the portion which the Lord Jesus Himself willingly accepted from the day of His entrance into the world. Wealth ruins far more souls than poverty. When the love of money begins to creep over us, let us think of the manger at Bethlehem, and of Him who was laid in it. Such thoughts may deliver us from much harm.

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Notes

v1.—[Cæsar Augustus.] This is that Octavius who, after the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at Actium, took the government of the Roman Empire into his own hands, and was, properly speaking, the first Cæsar, or Roman Emperor.

[The world.] Some think that the Greek word so translated, is specially applied, in the New Testament, to Judæa and the countries surrounding it. There is no sufficient proof of this. It cannot be taken in this limited sense in Acts 17:31, and Revelation 12:9, and need not be so taken here.

[Taxed.] The word so translated, might be equally well rendered "enrolled." It is so in the margin. In the only other place in the New Testament, where it is used, it is translated "written." Hebrews 12:23.

v2.—[This taxing was first made, &c.] There is a well-known difficulty connected with this verse, which calls for a few remarks. According to uninspired writers, Cyrenius or Quirinius, as he is called by Latin authors, was not governor of Syria, until eight or ten years after Christ was born. How can this be reconciled with Luke’s statement? The following explanations have been given.

Some say that the name of Cyrenius has got into the text by mistake, and that we ought to read instead of it, either Quintilius or Saturninus, who were the two governors preceding Cyrenius. But it is a most unsatisfactory proceeding to alter texts, in order to meet difficulties. In the present case there is no warrant for the alteration.

Some say that the explanation is to be found in the word translated, "was made," and that it ought to be rendered, "took effect." The sense would then be, that "this enrolling, or taxing, though ordered now, only first took effect when Cyrenius was governor."

Some say that the word translated, "first," should have been translated, "prior to," or "before." The sense would then be, "this taxing was before that made under Cyrenius." For such a translation there is authority in John 1:15, and John 1:30.

Some say that there were two taxings, in both of which Cyrenius was officially concerned, though not exactly in the same capacity on both occasions,—and that Luke was aware of this and expressly inserts the word "first," to show which of the two taxings he meant. In favour of this view, it must be remembered that Luke was infinitely more likely to be correct about a matter of fact, than any uninspired historians, and that we have no right to assume, where he differs from them, that they are correct, and he incorrect. Moreover, it is a striking fact, that Justin Martyr, who lived in the second century, distinctly asserts three times that Christ was born under Cyrenius. Wordsworth says that, "the researches of Zumpt have enhanced the probability that Quirinius, who was governor of Cilicia, was also governor of Syria at the time of the nativity."

v3.—[All went to be taxed.] Quesnel remarks, "Augustus imagines that he is busied in advancing the glory of his name, and the lustre of his reign. And yet his orders, by means of others more powerful and absolute than his, become subservient to the accomplishment of prophecies, of which he is altogether ignorant, —to the birth of a king whom he will never know,—and to the establishment of a monarchy, which will subject his and all others to itself. This is what happens in all ages, and men take no notice of it."

On this taxing being a fulfilment of Genesis 49:10, Watson observes, "Nothing can be more strikingly in proof, that the sceptre was departing from Judah, and the government of Herod was rather nominal than real. Julian the apostate objected to Christ’s claim, that He was by virtue of this very enrolment born one of Cæsar’s subjects, not knowing how truly this illustrated the ancient prophecy of Jacob, that his birth and the departing of the sceptre from Judah should be coincident."

v4.—[Lineage.] The word so translated is rendered in, the only other places where it is used, "kindred," or "family." Acts 3:25. Ephesians 3:15.

v7.—[Her first-born Son.] The words so translated are more emphatic in the Greek language, They would be rendered more literally, "her Son, the first-born one."

[Wrapped Him in swaddling clothes.] On this expression, the Fathers, and most Romish writers, have built the idea that our Lord’s birth was a childbirth without labour or pain. Such an idea is, to say the least, an unprofitable conjecture. There is nothing mentioned here which a mother, in Mary’s position, in an Eastern climate, might not have done for herself without aid. There is no need of imagining and inventing miraculous circumstances in our Lord’s incarnation, beside those which are fully revealed.

[A manger.] The word so translated is rendered, "a stall," in the only other place where it is used in the New Testament. Luke 13:15. It admits of considerable doubt whether the common idea that our Lord was laid in the trough out of which cattle feed, is really correct. There is no certain proof that the expression means anything more than that he was "laid in the stable, because there was no room in the house." Some think that this manger was one of those hair cloths, out of which horses, in those countries, are fed. There is strong reason for supposing that the whole transaction took place in a cave, such as many which are to be found in Judæa.

[No room in the Inn.] One fact should be carefully noted here, which is often entirely overlooked. In the providence of God the birth of Christ was attended with as much publicity as a birth could possibly be attended with. It took place at an inn, and an inn crowded with strangers from all parts. Imposture was thus rendered impossible. The event was patent to many witnesses, and could never be denied. The Son of God was really incarnate, and literally and really born of a woman, like any of ourselves. Had the birth taken place quietly at Nazareth, or in some private house at Bethlehem, in thirty years’ time the whole event would probably have been denied.

Verses 8-20

WE read, in these verses, how the birth of the Lord Jesus was first announced to the children of men. The birth of a king’s son is generally made an occasion of public reveling and rejoicing. The announcement of the birth of the Prince of Peace was made privately, at midnight, and without anything of worldly pomp and ostentation.

Let us mark who they were to whom the tidings first came that Christ was born. They were "shepherds abiding in the field near Bethlehem, keeping watch over their flocks by night." To shepherds—not to priests and rulers,—to shepherds—not to Scribes and Pharisees, an angel appeared, proclaiming, "unto you is born this day a Savior, which is Christ the Lord."

The saying of James should come into our mind, as we read these words: Hath not God chosen the poor of this world, rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he hath promised to them that love him." (James 2:5.) The want of money debars no one from spiritual privileges. The things of God’s kingdom are often hid from the great and noble, and revealed to the poor. The busy labor of the hands need not prevent a man being favored with special communion with God. Moses was keeping sheep,—Gideon was threshing wheat,—Elisha was ploughing, when they were severally honored by direct calls and revelations from God. Let us resist the suggestion of Satan, that religion is not for the working man. The weak of the world are often called before the mighty. The last are often first, and the first last.

Let us mark, secondly, the language used by the angel in announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds. He said, "I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people."

We need not wonder at these words. The spiritual darkness which had covered the earth for four thousand years, was about to be rolled away. The way to pardon and peace with God was about to be thrown open to all mankind. The head of Satan was about to be bruised. Liberty was about to be proclaimed to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind. The mighty truth was about to be proclaimed that God could be just, and yet, for Christ’s sake, justify the ungodly. Salvation was no longer to be seen through types and figures, but openly, and face to face. The knowledge of God was no longer to be confined to the Jews, but to be offered to the whole Gentile world. The days of heathenism were numbered. The first stone of God’s kingdom was about to be set up. If this was not "good tidings," there never were tidings that deserved the name.

Let us mark, thirdly, who they were that first praised God, when Christ was born. They were angels, and not men,—angels who had never sinned, and needed no Savior,—angels who had not fallen, and required no redeemer, and no atoning blood. The first hymn to the honor of "God manifest in the flesh," was sung by "a multitude of the heavenly host."

Let us note this fact. It is full of deep spiritual lessons. It shows us what good servants the angels are. All that their heavenly Master does pleases and interests them.—It shows us what clear knowledge they have. They know what misery sin has brought into creation. They know the blessedness of heaven, and the privilege of an open door into it.—Above all, it shows us the deep love and compassion which the angels feel towards poor lost man. They rejoice in the glorious prospect of many souls being saved, and many brands plucked from the burning.

Let us strive to be more like-minded with the angels. Our spiritual ignorance and deadness appear most painfully in our inability to enter into the joy which we see them here expressing. Surely if we hope to dwell with them forever in heaven, we ought to share something of their feelings while we are here upon earth. Let us seek a more deep sense of the sinfulness and misery of sin, and then we shall have a more deep sense of thankfulness for redemption.

Let us mark, fourthly, the hymn of praise which the heavenly host sung in the hearing of the shepherds. They said, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards men."

These famous words are variously interpreted. Man is by nature so dull in spiritual things, that it seems as if he cannot understand a sentence of heavenly language when he hears it. Yet a meaning may be drawn from the words which is free from any objection, and is not only good sense, but excellent theology, "Glory to God in the highest!" the song begins. Now is come the highest degree of glory to God, by the appearing of His Son Jesus Christ in the world. He by His life and death on the cross will glorify God’s attributes,—justice, holiness, mercy, and wisdom,—as they never were glorified before. Creation glorified God, but not so much as redemption.

"Peace on earth!" the song goes on. Now is come to earth the peace of God which passeth all understanding,—the perfect peace between a holy God and sinful man, which Christ was to purchase with His own blood,—the peace which is offered freely to all mankind,—the peace which, once admitted into the heart, makes men live at peace one with another, and will one day overspread the whole world.

"Good will towards men!" the song concludes. Now is come the time when God’s kindness and good will towards guilty man is to be fully made known. His power was seen in creation. His justice was seen in the flood. But His mercy remained to be fully revealed by the appearing and atonement of Jesus Christ.

Such was the purport of the angels’ song. Happy are they that can enter into its meaning, and with their hearts subscribe to its contents. The man who hopes to dwell in heaven, should have some experimental acquaintance with the language of its inhabitants.

Let us mark, ere we leave the passage, the prompt obedience to the heavenly vision displayed by the shepherds. We see in them no doubts, or questionings, or hesitation. Strange and improbable as the tidings might seem, they at once act upon them. They went to Bethlehem in haste. They found everything exactly as it had been told them. Their simple faith received a rich reward. They had the mighty privilege of being the first of all mankind, after Mary and Joseph, who saw with believing eyes the new-born Messiah. They soon returned, "glorifying and praising God" for what they had seen.

May our spirit be like theirs! May we ever believe implicitly, act promptly, and wait for nothing, when the path of duty is clear! So doing, we shall have a reward like that of the shepherds. The journey that is begun in faith, will generally end in praise.

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Notes

v8.—[Shepherds abiding in the field, &c.] It has been argued from these words, that our Lord could not have been born on Christmas day, because it was not the custom of the Jews to keep flocks in the field in winter. It may be doubted whether the argument is quite conclusive. At any rate, Jacob complains of "frost by night," when he kept the flock of Laban, in the neighbouring country of Padan Aram. (Genesis 31:40.) However, it is an undeniable fact that the precise month or day of our Lord’s nativity is not known. Every month in the year has found its advocates, in the conjectures made on the subject. Certainty about it there is none. Had it been good for us to know the day, God would have told us. For keeping Christmas we have no authority but that of the church.

v10.—[All people.] It may be questioned whether this expression was not meant to apply specially and primarily to the Jews. It would be translated more literally, "to all the people."

v12.—[The babe.] There can be no doubt that this expression would have been better translated, "a babe." The whole context, no less than the absence of the Greek article, shows the propriety of this.

v14.—[Good will.] The word and thing here are the same that we find in Ephesians 1:5, Ephesians 1:9. The meaning is that "good will and good pleasure of God" towards man, which is revealed in His Son Jesus Christ.—It is the same as the "kindness and love of God" in Titus 3:4, and the "love of God" in John 3:16.

v15.—[See this thing which is come to pass.] The word translated "this thing," might also be rendered "this saying." The commentary of Ambrose on this passage is a curious proof that the Fathers were anything but infallible. He actually regards "this thing" as the personal Word, the Son of God! A very slight acquaintance with Greek will show that this sense of the word is impossible. Even the Romish commentator Barradius is obliged to confess, that in this comment Ambrose erred.

v16.—[They came with haste.] There is a touching comment on this conduct of the shepherds, in a letter of Bishop Hooper’s to certain "godly and faithful prisoners, which were taken together at prayer in a house in Bow Churchyard." He says, "Read the second chapter of Luke, and there ye shall see how the shepherds that watched their sheep all night, as soon as they heard that Christ was born at Bethlehem, by and bye must go to see him. They did not reason nor debate with themselves who should keep the wolf from the sheep in the meantime, but did as they were commanded, and committed their sheep to him whose pleasure they obeyed. So let us do, now we be called; let us commit all other things unto him that called us. He will take heed that all things shall be well. He will help the husband; he will comfort the wife. He will guide the servants; he will keep the house; he will preserve the goods; yea, rather than it should be undone, he will wash the dishes, and rock the cradle. Cast, therefore, all your care upon God."—Hooper’s Works. Parker Edit. vol. ii. 617.

Verses 21-24

THE first point which demands our attention in this passage, is the obedience which our Lord rendered, as an infant, to the Jewish law. We read of His being circumcised on the eighth day. It is the earliest fact which is recorded in His history.

It is a mere waste of time to speculate, as some have done, about the reason why our Lord submitted to circumcision. We know that "in Him was no sin," either original or actual. (1 John 3:5.) His being circumcised was not meant in the least as an acknowledgment that there was any tendency to corruption in His heart. It was not a confession of inclination to evil, and of need of grace to mortify the deeds of His body. All this should be carefully borne in mind.

Let it suffice us to remember that our Lord’s circumcision was a public testimony to Israel, that according to the flesh He was a Jew, made of a Jewish woman, and "made under the law." (Galatians 4:4.) Without it He would not have fulfilled the law’s requirements. Without it He could not have been recognized as the son of David, and the seed of Abraham. Let us remember, furthermore, that circumcision was absolutely necessary before our Lord could be heard as a teacher in Israel. Without it he would have had no place in any lawful Jewish assembly, and no right to any Jewish ordinance. Without it He would have been regarded by all Jews as nothing better than an uncircumcised Gentile, and an apostate from the faith of the fathers.

Let our Lord’s submission to an ordinance which He did not need for Himself, be a lesson to us in our daily life. Let us endure much, rather than increase the offence of the Gospel, or hinder in any way the cause of God. The words of Paul deserve frequent pondering:—"Though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more, and unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews: to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law."—"I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some." (1 Corinthians 9:19-22.) The man who wrote these words walked very closely in the footsteps of His crucified Master.

The second point which demands our attention in this passage, is the name by which our Lord was called, by God’s special command. "His name was called Jesus, which was so named by the angel, before He was conceived in the womb."

The word Jesus means simply "Savior." It is the same word as "Joshua" in the Old Testament. Very striking and instructive is the selection of this name. The Son of God came down from heaven to be not only the Savior, but the King, the Lawgiver, the Prophet, the Priest, the Judge of fallen man. Had He chosen any one of these titles, He would only have chosen that which was His own. But He passed by them all. He selects a name which speaks of mercy, grace, help, and deliverance for a lost world. It is as a deliverer and Redeemer that He desires principally to be known.

Let us often ask ourselves what our own hearts know of the Son of God. Is He our Jesus, our Savior? This is the question on which our salvation turns. Let it not content us to know Christ as One who wrought mighty miracles, and spake as never man spake; or to know Him as One who is very God, and will one day judge the world. Let us see that we know Him experimentally, as our Deliverer from the guilt and power of sin, and our Redeemer from Satan’s bondage. Let us strive to be able to say, "This is my Friend: I was dead, and He gave me life: I was a prisoner, and He set me free."—Precious indeed is this name of Jesus to all true believers! It is "as ointment poured forth." (Song of Song of Solomon 1:3.) It restores them when conscience-troubled. It comforts them when cast down. It smooths their pillows in sickness. It supports them in the hour of death. "The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous runneth into it, and is safe." (Proverbs 18:10.)

The last point which demands our attention in this passage, is the poor and humble condition of our Lord’s mother, Mary. This is a fact which, at first sight, may not stand out clearly in the form of these verses. But a reference to the twelfth chapter of Leviticus will at once make it plain. There we shall see, that the offering which Mary made was specially appointed to be made by poor people:—"If she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtles, or two young pigeons." In short, her offering was a public declaration that she was poor. (Leviticus 12:8.)

Poverty, it is manifest, was our Lord’s portion upon earth, from the days of His earliest infancy. He was nursed and tended as a babe, by a poor woman. He passed the first thirty years of His life on earth, under the roof of a poor man. We need not doubt that He ate a poor man’s food, and wore a poor man’s apparel, and worked a poor man’s work, and shared in all a poor man’s troubles. Such condescension is truly marvelous. Such an example of humility passes man’s understanding.

Facts like these ought often to be laid to heart by poor people. They would help to silence murmuring and complaining, and go far to reconcile them to their hard lot. The simple fact that Jesus was born of a poor woman, and lived all his life on earth among poor people, ought to silence the common argument that "religion is not for the poor." Above all it ought to encourage every poor believer in all his approaches to the throne of grace in prayer. Let him remember in all his prayers that his mighty Mediator in heaven is accustomed to poverty, and knows by experience the heart of a poor man. Well would it be for the world if working men could only see that Christ is the true poor man’s friend!

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Notes

v21.—[Circumcising of the child.] Bishop Hall remarks, "He that came to be sin for us, would in our persons be legally unclean, that by satisfying the law he might take away our uncleanness. Though he were exempted from the ordinary conditions of our birth, yet he would not deliver himself from those ordinary rites that implied the weakness and blemishes of humanity. He would fulfil one law, to abrogate it; another, to satisfy it. He that was above the law, would come under the law, to free us from the law."

[Named of the angel before he was conceived.] Poole remarks, in his annotations, "We read of four under the Old Testament, to whom God gave names before they were born: Isaac,—Genesis 17:19; Josiah,—1 Kings 13:2; Ishmael,—Genesis 16:11; Cyrus,—Isaiah 44:28; and in the New Testament we read of two: John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. Which lets us know the certainty to God of future contingencies; for though the parents of Ishmael, Isaac, and John the Baptist, imposed those names in obedience to the command of God, and there was but a small time betwixt the giving of the names and the births, yet the case was otherwise as to Josiah and Cyrus."

v24.—[Two young pigeons.] Lightfoot says that this was called, in the Hebrew language, "The offering of the poor, which if a rich man offered, he did not do his duty."

Verses 25-35

WE have in these verses the history of one whose name is nowhere else mentioned in the New Testament, "a just and devout man" named Simeon. We know nothing of his life before or after the time when Christ was born. We are only told that he came by the Spirit into the temple, when the child Jesus was brought there by His mother, and that he "took him up in his arms and blessed God" in words which are now well-known all over the world.

We see, in the case of Simeon, how God has a believing people even in the worst of places, and in the darkest times. Religion was at a very low ebb in Israel when Christ was born. The faith of Abraham was spoiled by the doctrines of Pharisees and Sadducees. The fine gold had become deplorably dim. Yet even then we find in the midst of Jerusalem a man "just and devout",—a man "upon whom is the Holy Ghost."

It is a cheering thought that God never leaves Himself entirely without a witness. Small as His believing church may sometimes be, the gates of hell shall never completely prevail against it. The true church may be driven into the wilderness, and be a scattered little flock, but it never dies. There was a Lot in Sodom and an Obadiah in Ahab’s household, a Daniel in Babylon and a Jeremiah in Zedekiah’s court; and in the last days of the Jewish Church, when its iniquity was almost full, there were godly people, like Simeon, even in Jerusalem.

True Christians, in every age, should remember this and take comfort. It is a truth which they are apt to forget, and in consequence to give way to despondency. "I only am left," said Elijah, "and they seek my life to take it away." But what said the answer of God to him, "Yet have I left me seven thousand in Israel." (1 Kings 19:14, 1 Kings 19:18.) Let us learn to be more hopeful. Let us believe that grace can live and flourish, even in the most unfavorable circumstances. There are more Simeons in the world than we suppose.

We see in the song of Simeon how completely a believer can be delivered from the fear of death; "Lord," says old Simeon, "now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace." He speaks like one for whom the grave has lost its terrors, and the world its charms. He desires to be released from the miseries of this pilgrim-state of existence, and to be allowed to go home. He is willing to be "absent from the body and present with the Lord." He speaks as one who knows where he is going when he departs this life, and cares not how soon he goes. The change with him will be a change for the better, and he desires that his change may come.

What is it that can enable a mortal man to use such language as this? What can deliver us from that "fear of death" to which so many are in bondage? What can take the sting of death away?—There is but one answer to such questions. Nothing but strong faith can do it. Faith laying firm hold on an unseen Savior,—faith resting on the promises of an unseen God,—faith, and faith only, can enable a man to look death in the face, and say, "I depart in peace." It is not enough to be weary of pain, and sickness, and ready to submit to anything for the sake of a change. It is not enough to feel indifferent to the world, when we have no more strength to mingle in its business, or enjoy its pleasures. We must have something more than this, if we desire to depart in real peace. We must have faith like old Simeon’s, even that faith which is the gift of God. Without such faith we may die quietly, and there may seem "no bands in our death." (Psalms 73:4.) But, dying without such faith, we shall never find ourselves at home, when we wake up in another world.

We see, furthermore, in the song of Simeon, what clear views of Christ’s work and office some Jewish believers attained, even before the Gospel was preached. We find this good old man speaking of Jesus as "the salvation which God had prepared,"—as "a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of his people Israel." Well would it have been for the letter-learned Scribes and Pharisees of Simeon’s time, if they had sat at his feet, and listened to his word.

Christ was indeed "a light to lighten the Gentiles." Without Him they were sunk in gross darkness and superstition. They knew not the way of life. They worshiped the works of their own hands. Their wisest philosophers were utterly ignorant in spiritual things. "Professing themselves to be wise they became fools." (Romans 1:22.) The Gospel of Christ was like sun-rise to Greece and Rome, and the whole heathen world. The light which it let in on men’s minds on the subject of religion, was as great as the change from night to day.

Christ was indeed "the glory of Israel." The descent from Abraham—the covenants—the promises—the law of Moses—the divinely ordered Temple service—all these were mighty privileges. But all were as nothing compared to the mighty fact, that out of Israel was born the Savior of the world. This was to be the highest honor of the Jewish nation, that the mother of Christ was a Jewish woman, and that the blood of One "made of the seed of David, according to the flesh," was to make atonement for the sin of mankind. (Romans 1:3.)

The words of old Simeon, let us remember, will yet receive a fuller accomplishment. The "light" which he saw by faith, as he held the child Jesus in his arms, shall yet shine so brightly that all the nations of the Gentile world shall see it.—The "glory" of that Jesus whom Israel crucified, shall one day be revealed so clearly to the scattered Jews, that they shall look on Him whom they pierced, and repent, and be converted. The day shall come when the veil shall be taken from the heart of Israel, and all shall "glory in the Lord." (Isaiah 45:25.) For that day let us wait, and watch, and pray. If Christ be the light and glory of our souls, that day cannot come too soon.

We see, lastly, in this passage, a striking account of the results which would follow when Jesus Christ and His Gospel came into the world. Every word of old Simeon on this subject deserves private meditation. The whole forms a prophecy which is being daily fulfilled.

Christ was to be "a sign spoken against." He was to be a mark for all the fiery darts of the wicked one. He was to be "despised and rejected of men." He and His people were to be a "city set upon a hill," assailed on every side, and hated by all sorts of enemies. And so it proved. Men who agreed in nothing else have agreed in hating Christ. From the very first, thousands have been persecutors and unbelievers. Christ was to be the occasion of "the fall of many in Israel." He was to be a stone of stumbling and rock of offence to many proud and self-righteous Jews, who would reject Him and perish in their sins. And so it proved. To multitudes among them Christ crucified was a stumbling-block, and His Gospel "a savor of death." (1 Corinthians 1:23; 2 Corinthians 2:16.)

Christ was to be the occasion of "rising again to many in Israel." He was to prove the Savior of many who, at one time, rejected, blasphemed, and reviled Him, but afterwards repented and believed. And so it proved. When the thousands who crucified Him repented, and Saul who persecuted Him was converted, there was nothing less than a rising again from the dead.

Christ was to be the occasion of "the thoughts of many hearts being revealed." His Gospel was to bring to light the real characters of many people. The enmity to God of some,—the inward weariness and hunger of others, would be discovered by the preaching of the cross. It would show what men really were. And so it proved. The Acts of the Apostles, in almost every chapter, bear testimony that in this, as in every other item of his prophecy, old Simeon spoke truth.

And now what do we think of Christ? This is the question that ought to occupy our minds. What thoughts does He call forth in our hearts? This is the inquiry which ought to receive our attention. Are we for Him, or are we against Him? Do we love Him, or do we neglect Him? Do we stumble at His doctrine, or do we find it life from the dead? Let us never rest till these questions are satisfactorily answered.

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Notes

v25.—[A man whose name was Simeon.] Some learned men hold that this Simeon was a man of great note in Jerusalem, the son of Hillel, and father of Gamaliel. Henry says, "the Jews say that he was endued with a prophetic spirit, and that he was turned out of his place because he witnessed against the common opinion of the Jews concerning the temporal kingdom of the Messiah." All this, to say the least, is doubtful.

[The consolation of Israel.] This was a name applied by the Jews to the Messiah. Lightfoot says, "the whole nation waited for the consolation of Israel; insomuch that there was nothing more common with them, than to swear by the desire which they had of seeing it."

[The Holy Ghost...upon him.] Let us not fail to note that this was before the death and ascension of Christ, and the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. We must never forget that Old Testament saints were taught by the Holy Ghost, as really as believers after the Gospel was set up, though not in such full measure.

v29.—[Lettest...depart.] The idea is that of loosing a person from a chain, or giving a prisoner release from captivity.

v30.—[Salvation.] The word so translated is only used here and in three other places: Luke 3:6; Acts 28:28; and Ephesians 6:17. It is a more abstract, energetic word than the one commonly so translated.

v31.—[All people.] The expression here is different from that in Luke 2:10. it would be more literally and correctly rendered in this place, "all peoples."

v32.—[Light to...the Gentiles...glory of...Israel.] Ford quotes Dr. Richard Clerke’s remarks on this verse, "It is noted by the learned that the sweet singer of this song doth put the Gentile before the Jew, because the second calling, the conversion of the Jews to Christ, shall not be till the fulness of the Gentiles be come in."

v33.—[Of him.] Let it be noted carefully that "of" in this place means "about," or "concerning."

v34.—[Simeon blessed them.] From this expression some have supposed that Simeon was at least a chief priest, if not the high priest. There is nothing to justify the supposition. As one specially inspired by the Holy Ghost to prophecy, Simeon was doing nothing more, in blessing them, than any prophet would have done, whether a priest or not.

v35.—[A sword shall pierce, &c.] The simplest explanation of these words is, that Simeon foretells sorrow coming on Mary, as cutting and heart-piercing as a sword. This was specially fulfilled when she stood by the cross, and saw her Son dying there. Might not our Lord be reminding her of this prophecy, when in that solemn hour He commended her to His disciple John, saying, "Behold thy mother,"—in order that she might have a friend in her time of need?

Verses 36-40

THE verses we have now read introduce us to a servant of God whose name is nowhere else mentioned in the New Testament. The history of Anna, like that of Simeon, is related only by Luke. The wisdom of God ordained that a woman as well as a man should testify to the fact that Messiah was born. In the mouth of two witnesses it was established that Malachi’s prophecy was fulfilled, and the messenger of the covenant had suddenly come to the Temple. (Malachi 3:1.)

Let us observe, in these verses, the character of a holy woman before the establishment of Christ’s Gospel. The facts recorded about Anna are few and simple. But we shall find them full of instruction.

Anna was a woman of irreproachable character. After a married life of only seven years’ duration, she had spent eighty-four years as a lone widow. The trials, desolation, and temptation of such a condition were probably very great. But Anna by grace overcame them all. She answered to the description given by Paul. She was "a widow indeed." (1 Timothy 5:5.)

Anna was a woman who loved God’s house. "She departed not from the temple." She regarded it as the place where God especially dwelt, and toward which every pious Jew in foreign lands, like Daniel, loved to direct his prayers. "Nearer to God, nearer to God," was the desire of her heart, and she felt that she was never so near as within the walls which contained the ark, the altar, and the holy of holies. She could enter into David’s words, "my soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the LORD." (Psalms 84:2.)

Anna was a woman of great self-denial. She "served God with fastings night and day." She was continually crucifying the flesh and keeping it in subjection by voluntary abstemiousness. Being fully persuaded in her own mind that the practice was helpful to her soul, she spared no pains to keep it up.

Anna was a woman of much prayer. She "served God with prayer night and day." She was continually communing with him, as her best Friend, about the things that concerned her own peace. She was never weary of pleading with Him on behalf of others, and, above all, for the fulfillment of His promises of Messiah.

Anna was a woman who held communion with other saints. So soon as she had seen Jesus, she "spake of Him" to others whom she knew in Jerusalem, and with whom she was evidently on friendly terms. There was a bond of union between her and all who enjoyed the same hope. They were servants of the same Master; and travelers to the same home.

And Anna received a rich reward for all her diligence in God’s service, before she left the world. She was allowed to see Him who had been so long promised, and for whose coming she had so often prayed. Her faith was at last changed to sight, and her hope to certainty. The joy of this holy woman must indeed have been "unspeakable and full of glory." (1 Peter 1:8.)

It would be well for all Christian women to ponder the character of Anna, and learn wisdom from it. The times, no doubt, are greatly changed. The social duties of the Christian are very different from those of the Jewish believer at Jerusalem. All are not placed by God in the condition of widows. But still, after every deduction, there remains much in Anna’s history which is worthy of imitation. When we read of her consistency, and holiness, and prayerfulness, and self-denial, we cannot but wish that many daughters of the Christian Church would strive to be like her.

Let us observe, secondly, in these verses, the description given of saints in Jerusalem in the time when Jesus was born. They were people "who looked for redemption."

Faith, we shall always find, is the universal character of God’s elect. These men and women here described, dwelling in the midst of a wicked city, walked by faith, and not by sight. They were not carried away by the flood of worldliness, formality, and self-righteousness around them. They were not infected by the carnal expectations of a mere worldly Messiah, in which most Jews indulged. They lived in the faith of patriarchs and prophets, that the coming Redeemer would bring in holiness and righteousness, and that His principal victory would be over sin and the devil. For such a Redeemer they waited patiently. For such a victory they earnestly longed.

Let us learn a lesson from these good people. If they, with so few helps and so many discouragements, lived such a life of faith, how much more ought we with a finished Bible and a full Gospel. Let us strive, like them, to walk by faith and look forward. The second advent of Christ is yet to come. The complete "redemption" of this earth from sin, and Satan, and the curse, is yet to take place. Let us declare plainly by our lives and conduct, that for this second advent we look and long. We may be sure that the highest style of Christianity even now, is to "wait for redemption," and to love the Lord’s appearing. (Romans 8:23; 2 Timothy 4:8.)

Let us observe, lastly, in these verses, what clear proof we have that the Lord Jesus was really and truly man, as well as God. We read, that when Mary and Joseph returned to their own city Nazareth, "the child grew and waxed strong in spirit."

There is, doubtless, much that is deeply mysterious in the Person of the Lord Jesus. How the same Person could be at once perfect God and perfect man, is a point that necessarily passes our understanding. In what manner and measure, and in what proportion at the early part of His life, that divine knowledge which He doubtless possessed, was exercised, we cannot possibly explain. It is a high thing. We cannot attain unto it.

One thing, however, is perfectly clear, and we shall do well to lay firm hold upon it. Our Lord partook of everything that belongs to man’s nature, sin only excepted. As man He was born an infant. As man He grew from infancy to boyhood. As man He yearly increased in bodily strength and mental power, during His passage from boyhood to full age. Of all the sinless conditions of man’s body, its first feebleness, its after growth, its regular progress to maturity, He was in the fullest sense a partaker. We must rest satisfied with knowing this. To pry beyond is useless. To know this clearly is of much importance. A want of settled knowledge of it has led to many wild heresies.

One comfortable practical lesson stands out on the face of this truth, which ought never to be overlooked. Our Lord is able to sympathize with man in every stage of man’s existence, from the cradle to the grave. He knows by experience the nature and temperament of the child, the boy, and the young man. He has stood in their place. He has occupied their position. He knows their hearts. Let us never forget this in dealing with young people about their souls. Let us tell them confidently, that there is One in heaven at the right hand of God, who is exactly suited to be their Friend. He who died on the cross was once a boy Himself, and feels a special interest in boys and girls, as well as in grown up people.

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Notes

v36.—[A prophetess.] This is a remarkable expression, and only used on one other occasion in the New Testament. Revelation 2:20. If the word is to be taken in its fullest sense, it seems to show that the spirit of prophecy, which had been withheld for nigh four hundred years since Malachi’s time, was being restored to Israel when Christ was born. But as the word "prophet" does not necessarily imply, in the New Testament, the power of foretelling things to come, so also it may be with the word "prophetess."

[Tribe of Aser.] This is remarkable, when we remember that Asher was one of the ten tribes, who were carried into captivity, and never returned. We must conclude that a scattered remnant of them were, in some way, mixed up with Judah and Benjamin, and with them returned from Babylon after the captivity.

v38.—[Spake of Him...to all, &c.] It is worthy of remark, that this presentation of our Lord in the temple, appears to have been the primary fulfilment of the prophecy of Malachi 3:1, "The Lord shall suddenly come to his temple." It was indeed a sudden unostentatious coming. The only witnesses, apparently, were an old man and an old woman,—and the only attendants a poor woman and her equally poor husband,—and the form in which the Lord appeared was as a little infant in arms! How little we should have expected this! How many prophecies may be fulfilling around us at this very time! God’s ways are truly not as our ways.

v39.—[Returned into Galilee...to...Nazareth.] Two important incidents in our Lord’s history come in here, which Luke passes over, not necessarily because he was ignorant of them, but simply, because he was not inspired to write of them. Those incidents are the visit of the wise men from the East, and the flight into Egypt. Joseph and Mary appear to have returned to Bethlehem after the presentation in the temple, though it is quite possible that they may have gone to Nazareth for a short time. They, probably, returned to Bethlehem under a sense of duty, as if the Messiah ought to dwell in the place where it was prophesied He should be born. There at Bethlehem, they were visited by the wise men from the East. From thence, being supplied by their gifts with the means of journeying, they fled into Egypt, to escape the anger of Herod. From Egypt, after the death of Herod, they returned to Nazareth.

There are doubtless other views propounded on this somewhat difficult subject. The one above stated appears to be by far the most reasonable, and to involve the fewest difficulties.

If Mary and Joseph had remained at Bethlehem till the visit of the wise men, and after their visit had gone up to Jerusalem, they would have been deliberately plunging into danger, by going to the place where Herod was.

If the presentation in the temple did not take place till after the visit of the wise men, and the reception of their gifts, it does not seem likely that Mary’s offering would only have been a pair of pigeons.

Verses 41-52

THESE verses should always be deeply interesting to a reader of the Bible. They record the only fact which we know about our Lord Jesus Christ during the first thirty years of His life on earth, after His infancy. How many things a Christian would like to know about the events of those thirty years, and the daily history of the house at Nazareth! But we need not doubt that there is wisdom in the silence of Scripture on the subject. If it had been good for us to know more, more would have been revealed.

Let us first, draw from the passage a lesson for all married people. We have it in the conduct of Joseph and Mary, here described. We are told that "they went to Jerusalem every year, at the feast of the passover." They regularly honored God’s appointed ordinances, and they honored them together. The distance from Nazareth to Jerusalem was great. The journey, to poor people without any means of conveyance, was, doubtless, troublesome and fatiguing. To leave house and home for ten days or a fortnight was no slight expense. But God had given Israel a command, and Joseph and Mary strictly obeyed it. God had appointed an ordinance for their spiritual good, and they regularly kept it. And all that they did concerning the passover they did together. When they went up to the feast, they always went up side by side.

So ought it to be with all Christian husbands and wives. They ought to help one another in spiritual things, and to encourage one another in the service of God. Marriage, unquestionably, is not a sacrament, as the Romish Church vainly asserts. But marriage is a state of life which has the greatest effect on the souls of those who enter into it. It helps them upwards or downwards. It leads them nearer to heaven or nearer to hell. We all depend much on the company we keep. Our characters are insensibly molded by those with whom we pass our time. To none does this apply so much as to married people. Husbands and wives are continually doing either good or harm to one another’s souls.

Let all who are married, or think of being married, ponder these things well. Let them take example from the conduct of Joseph and Mary, and resolve to do likewise. Let them pray together, and read the Bible together, and go to the house of God together, and talk to one another about spiritual matters. Above all, let them beware of throwing obstacles and discouragements in one another’s way about means of grace. Blessed are those husbands who say to their wives as Elkanah did to Hannah, "Do all that is in thy heart." Happy are those wives who say to their husbands as Leah and Rachel did to Jacob, "Whatsoever God hath said unto thee, do." (1 Samuel 1:23; Genesis 31:16.)

Let us, secondly, draw from the passage, an example for all young persons. We have it in the conduct of our Lord Jesus Christ, when He was left by Himself in Jerusalem at the age of twelve years. For four days He was out of sight of Mary and Joseph. For three days they "sought him sorrowing," not knowing what had befallen Him. Who can imagine the anxiety of such a mother at losing such a child?—And where did they find Him at last? Not idling His time away, or getting into mischief, as many boys of twelve years old do. Not in vain and unprofitable company. "They found him in the temple of God,—sitting in the midst" of the Jewish teachers, "hearing" what they had to say, and "asking questions" about things He wished to be explained.

So ought it to be with the younger members of Christian families. They ought to be steady and trustworthy behind the backs of their parents, as well as before their faces. They ought to seek the company of the wise and prudent, and to use every opportunity of getting spiritual knowledge, before the cares of life come on them, and while their memories are fresh and strong.

Let Christian boys and girls ponder these things well, and take example from the conduct of Jesus at the age of only twelve years. Let them remember, that if they are old enough to do wrong, they are also old enough to do right; and that if able to read story-books and to talk, they are also able to read their Bibles and pray. Let them remember, that they are accountable to God, even while they are yet young, and that it is written that God "heard the voice of a lad." (Genesis 21:17.) Happy indeed are those families in which the children "seek the Lord early," and cost their parents no tears. Happy are those parents who can say of their boys and girls, when absent from them, "I can trust my children that they will not wilfully run into sin."

Let us, in the last place, draw from this passage, an example for all true Christians. We have it in the solemn words which our Lord addressed to His mother Mary, when she said to Him, "Son, why hast thou dealt with us thus?"—"Wist ye not," was the reply, "that I must be about my father’s business?" A mild reproof was evidently implied in that reply. It was meant to remind His mother that He was no common person, and had come into the world to do no common work. It was a hint that she was insensibly forgetting that He had come into the world in no ordinary way, and that she could not expect Him to be ever dwelling quietly at Nazareth. It was a solemn remembrancer that, as God, He had a Father in heaven, and that this heavenly Father’s work demanded His first attention.

The expression is one that ought to sink down deeply into the hearts of all Christ’s people. It should supply them with a mark at which they should aim in daily life, and a test by which they should try their habits and conversation. It should quicken them when they begin to be slothful. It should check them when they feel inclined to go back to the world.—"Are we about our Father’s business? Are we walking in the steps of Jesus Christ?"—Such questions will often prove very humbling, and make us ashamed of ourselves. But such questions are eminently useful to our souls. Never is a Church in so healthy a condition as when its believing members aim high, and strive in all things to be like Christ.

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Notes

v42.—[Twelve years old.] This age appears to have been regarded by the Jews as a kind of turning point out of the state of childhood. Lightfoot quotes a saying from one of the Rabbinical writers: "Let a man deal gently with his son, till he comes to be twelve years old; but from that time let him descend with him into his way of living,—that is, let him diligently keep him close to that way, rule, and act, by which he may get his living."

v44.—[Company.] The word so translated is only used in this place. It specially means a company of persons on a journey.

[Supposing...went a day’s journey.] An explanation of this is given by Bede, in a passage quoted by Corderius. He says it was the custom in going to and returning from Jewish feasts, for the men to walk by themselves, and the women by themselves. In this way Joseph might easily "suppose" that Jesus was with Mary, and Mary suppose" that He was with Joseph.

v46.—[After three days.] Bishop Hall remarks, "Where wert thou, O blessed Jesus, for the space of these three days? Where didst thou bestow thyself, or who tended thee, while thou wert thus alone in Jerusalem?—Whether it pleased thee to exercise thyself thus early with the difficulties of a stranger, or to provide miraculously for thyself, I inquire not, since thou revealest not. Only this I know, that hereby thou intendest to teach thy parents that thou couldst live without them, and that not out of any indigency, but out of a gracious dispensation, thou wouldest ordinarily depend upon their care."

[Sitting in...midst of...doctors, &c.] The common expression, "Christ disputing with the doctors," is utterly destitute of foundation in this passage. It conveys an improper and incorrect idea, and ought to be discouraged among Christians. There is not the slightest trace in the account before us of any "dispute" at all.

v48.—[Why hast thou dealt with us thus.] There is evidence of infirmity in this language of Mary to our Lord. She seems here, as on other occasions, to have shown herself to be like other holy women,—a being who needed a Saviour herself, and therefore unable to save others.

v49.—[About my Father’s business.] These words so translated would admit of being rendered, "in my Father’s house," and many commentators are strongly in favour of that sense being given to them. But, on the whole, our own English translation seems the best and most comprehensive. The proposed translation cramps and limits our Lord’s words, by confining their application to one thing, "my father’s house." The translation "my father’s business" embraces a far wider range of thought, and is more in keeping with the general depth and fulness of our Lord’s sayings.

v51.—[was subject.] The words imply a continual habit during His residence at Nazareth, and not a single isolated act.

v52.—[Increased in wisdom and stature.] A sentence from Poole’s Annotations on this subject, is worth reading: "If any ask how He who was the eternal wisdom of the Father, who is the only one God, increased in wisdom, they must know that all things in Scripture which are spoken of Christ, are not spoken with respect to His entire Person, but with respect to the one or other nature united in that Person. He increased in wisdom, as He did in age or stature, with respect to His human, not His divine nature. And as God daily magnified His grace and favour towards Him, so He gained Him favour with the unrighteous and people of Galilee."

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Bibliographical Information
Ryle, J. C. "Commentary on Luke 2". "J. C. Ryle's Expository Thoughts on the Gospels". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ryl/luke-2.html.