Nunc Dimittis
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Nunc Dimittis

From Series: Good News, Great Joy

Luke 2:29-32  (ID: 2999)

Simeon was a faithful man who trusted that God would be faithful to all of His promises. When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple, then, Simeon recognized and embraced Him not only as the source of his own peace, but also as the Messiah who would be the glory of Israel and the light of the world. In this message from Luke 2:29–32, Alistair Begg encourages each of us to embrace the Lord Jesus as Simeon did, finding in Him the fulfillment of all that God has promised.


Sermon Transcript:

Luke chapter 2, and we’ll read from verse 22 to verse 32:

“And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.’ Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,

“‘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.’”

Amen.

Gracious God, please help us as we turn to the Word before we turn to the table that is spread before us, bearing the emblems of what it means for you to be our Savior and King. We look away from ourselves to you in every aspect and pray in Christ’s name. Amen.

Well, the verses to which I’d like to draw your attention are essentially 29–32. We don’t have a lot of time to deal with them but enough to say something that I hope will be of benefit to us.

Simeon acknowledges God’s absolute right over his life, whether to retain him or to dispense with him.

These are familiar words to everyone who was brought up in the context of Anglican liturgy—which means that rules out about 99 percent of the present congregation. I think they also probably were a feature of Lutheran worship and certainly of Roman Catholic worship. So, they will be familiar words to many of us, and those of us as well who come from none of those backgrounds. They’ve actually been with us—in terms of Christendom, in terms of the church—for a very long time, going back even as far as the fifth century. But they were catapulted into usefulness in the sixteenth century, when Archbishop Cranmer included these verses, 29–32, as the final canticle or song that was included in the Book of Common Prayer. It was Cranmer who wrote the first two editions of the Book of Common Prayer.

And we often refer to it here, and do so, I think, gladly and somewhat helpfully. It is a matter of encouragement to me to realize that when I turn to these pages, although they’re not obviously the pages that were penned by Cranmer, they still are the same words. Cranmer was born in 1489. He was the Archbishop of Canterbury, as you remember, during the reign of Henry VIII. Most of us only know there was a Henry VIII because of Herman’s Hermits, you know. We’d like to think we knew that from history, but no, we only knew it because of “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am,” you know? And that’s all but all the intellectuals here, of course, but the rest of us learned it from Herman’s Hermits. He also was archbishop during the reign of Edward VI and also for a short time during Mary I, just in case you’re thinking about it and looking for him.

But the point is that for hundreds of years, congregations have ended their day in worship by reading the ancient words in light of the exposition of the gospel. And it really is a quite wonderful end to the day, isn’t it? Said one commentator, its appropriateness for evening worship is that it expresses a readiness for death—which, of course, it does. And its appropriateness for evening worship is in the fact that it expresses a readiness for death, which, the commentator went on to say, “of which every night brings a type in sleep,”[1] which it does. Because to die is to fall asleep in the arms of Jesus and to waken up and find out that you’re home.

Well, I went to bed every night as a youngster, from as early as I can remember, reciting, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep.” And I didn’t pray the American version but the British version. The British version went: “And if I die before I wake, I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take.” It didn’t seem to bother my parents at all to confront me as an infant with the reality of death. After all, what were you going to do when people started to die around you? It’d be better that you learned it from your parents than that you had to learn it from somebody else.

Anyway, it is an appropriate verse, because it is an occasion of reminding us of the brevity of life and the solemnity of things. And I would imagine that every believer—certainly I feel this way myself—would want, if possible, to come to the end of our earthly lives with these words at least on our hearts, if not on our lips. My wife and I had occasion to be in the home of one of our members who passed away during the summer, and it was a wonderful testimony in absentia to the fact that this particular brave and sincere and godly woman ended her life essentially with Simeon’s song in her heart.

You say, “Well, why are we here tonight? It’s Communion.” Well, I want to be dead honest with you. I have found myself very loathe to leave behind the infancy narratives this year. I’ve spent more time studying these infancy narratives this year than at any other point in my life, and I’ve found them to be rich. It is such a shame, isn’t it, that they’ve become Christmas stories? The apostles would have wondered what in the world we were talking about if we said, “Well, we only read them at Christmas.” They would have said, “What is Christmas, for goodness’ sake?” No, it’s a fund of vital and important information.

And I was struck, because we were using Luke, by the fact that I said, “Well, we must finish at verse 20”—and trust me, I’m not going to go on and pick up the series again; we’ll leave it as it is. But Luke doesn’t end the infancy or the birth narrative with the arrival and departure of the shepherds. He takes us beyond there to give us a glimpse of two occasions of Jesus in the temple. In the first instance, he is carried in there by Mary and Joseph, and in the second instance, which begins recorded for us in verse 41, he is there at the age of twelve, when he is separated, you’ll remember, from Mary and Joseph and the rest of the group, and as they retrace their steps and find him, once again, he is a source of amazement and of wonder to them.

We’re not going to go there, but we just need to say a word concerning this lovely man, Simeon. It would be nice to grow old and be a kind of Simeon, wouldn’t it? We don’t really know anything about him apart from what’s written right here in Luke’s record. So we’re thankful to Luke for introducing us to him; otherwise, we wouldn’t have known there was a Simeon. Of course, we recognize that Luke wrote under the guidance of God the Holy Spirit; therefore, God wanted to make sure that we knew this man Simeon. And that’s why he has recorded the story of him here.

His life, you will see from the text as we read it, was characterized by religious devotion. He was “in Jerusalem … righteous and devout.” We’re told that he was “waiting for the consolation of Israel,” which is just another way of saying that he was waiting for the Messiah to come. You remember Isaiah 40 begins, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, [says the Lord].”[2] And one of the ways in which the Jewish people looked for the arrival of the Messiah was in light of the comfort that he would bring. And so, when Simeon is described as waiting for the comfort of the consolation of Israel, that’s exactly what is in mind.

We’re also told, you will notice, that he enjoyed a peculiar power and presence of God the Holy Spirit. Before Pentecost—long before Pentecost—we’re told that “the Holy Spirit was upon him,” verse 25, and as a result of the Holy Spirit being upon him, it was “revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” There’s a lot in that which we need to leave aside, but it will repay your further study. And it was in light of that that we’re told here by Luke that the appearing of Mary and Joseph was the occasion of his declaration in the Nunc Dimittis, as it is referred to in Anglican liturgy, in the Latin that opens it.

Now, the appearance of Mary and Joseph was in accordance with the Law, you see? “When the parents brought … the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law”—and that was in relationship to this matter of purification. “And when the time came for their purification…” The Law, Leviticus 12, made it clear that there was seven days to the circumcision of a male child, and thirty-three days followed that in relationship to a male; it was longer in relationship to a female. Don’t ask me why, but it was. You can read all about it in Leviticus chapter 12. And provision was made for the sacrificial offering that was given on that occasion. That’s the significance in the text here, where all of a sudden you have these turtledoves and young pigeons flying out of the rafters, so to speak. And as you read that, you say, “My, my, I don’t really know what that’s about.” Well, this is the final verse of Leviticus 12, and the instruction of the Law of God was, “If she”—that is, the mother—“cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering.”[3]

So, what a picture this is. You have a poor couple. Poor couple. And they don’t have enough to provide a lamb for the sacrifice. And they come into the temple. They have their baby with them; it’s a boy. “And when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, [Simeon] took him up in his arms.” Well, that’s customary. I suppose old people are allowed to say, “What a lovely baby! Can I hold him for a chance?” And she said, “Yes, go ahead.”

But look what Simeon then said. It’s another reminder to what we learned this morning, isn’t it? People can look at the Bible and see nothing. They can look at Jesus and see no one. How could Simeon possibly look at this poor couple carrying this wee boy and say what he said apart from the promises of the Word of God and the power of the Spirit of God? And it was as true then as it was later in Christ’s manhood, and it is as true today, as we were reminded this morning, helpfully.

Simeon’s language is dramatic: “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace.” The word that he uses for Lord is not kurios, which is used six thousand times or so in the New Testament. He uses a word that is used only five times: three times of God, two times of Jesus the Son: despotes. Despot. He uses the terminology of a slave owner who had complete control over the slaves in his possession. And that is the word that he uses. Taking the baby in his arms, he addresses God in that way. He acknowledges God’s absolute right over his life, whether to retain him or to dispense with him. “Lord,” he says, “you are now letting your servant depart in peace. The promises in your Word, I’ve tracked them. The arrival of your Messiah I have anticipated. And now, in the wonder of this moment, here, I bless you, God. My eyes have seen your salvation.” Of all the things that people say when they take a baby in their arms, nothing compares to this! “Oh, he has this, looks like his mother,” all that kind of stuff. But have you ever, ever heard somebody take a child and say anything that approximates to this? Has ever anyone in the whole world ever said anything like this? No one ever could! For they apply to no one else in the whole world. Salvation is found in no one else except in Jesus.[4]

And I wonder, does your mind work like mine? I hope not. But in case it does, don’t you think there must have been an encouragement here for Mary particularly? There’s all the excitement of having a baby—at least from the father’s side of things, you know. We get to be excited about it; the mother has to produce it. But there is a measure of excitement and joy in that, I believe, by report and observation. And the first few days are pretty interesting. People come around. But then it’s seven days, and ten days, and a week, and two weeks. And the questions are, “Did you sleep last night?”

“I don’t know; I was up.”

“Did he feed?”

“Well, not as much as I would have liked.”

And unless you have some kind of Jesus who wasn’t really human, then you have to believe that the real challenges of childbirth and child-rearing were part and parcel of that.

And so, three weeks become four weeks, and four weeks become five weeks. And one night, as Mary’s going to bed, she says to Joseph, “What do you think’s gonna happen next?”

He said, “Well, what do you mean?”

She says, “Well, I know the angel came and, you know, announced the thing, and I know we have the baby. But, you know, what are we supposed to do now?”

And Joseph, being a carpenter, a good solid citizen, a sensible soul, says, “Well, tell you what we’re gonna do: we’re gonna do the next thing. What is the next thing we’re supposed to do according to the Law of God?”

“Well, according to the Law of God, we’re supposed to, day forty, when he’s about six weeks, we go up to the temple in Jerusalem.”

Joseph says, “That’s exactly what we’ll do. And we’ll do what God says, and then we’ll see what God does.” That’s a good way round to go. Some of us are waiting to see what God does before we do what God says. That’s completely upside down. No, “We’ll do what God says, and then we’ll see what God does.”

And it is in the context of their obedience that they run into the ministry of this lovely old man, whose words are a reinforcement of the angelic announcement, so that if there was any sense of diffidence in the mind of Mary, saying to herself, “Goodness, I wonder if that was a dream, about that whole angelic thing. Did I dream that, or did that happen? Is this really the Messiah of God that we’ve got here, bringing up to the temple?” And this old man comes up and says, “Excuse me? Give me that child for a minute, will you?” And he takes the baby in his arms. And he says, “Lord—despotes, apolueis—you can let me go now. For my eyes have seen your salvation.”

And the blessings of salvation, you will see—which is really what I wanted to talk about, but now it is a series—but the blessings of salvation are described as threefold. So, I’ll just point them out to you, and then we’ll have a prayer.

They’re not just personal. Let’s take them in reverse order.

The blessings of salvation are “for glory to your people Israel.” “For glory to your people Israel.” In Jesus Christ, there is not only consolation for Israel, but there is glory. There is glory. We do not have time to unpack this, but it is there to be done.

You remember when Jesus meets the woman at the well, and she asks the question about, “Listen, do we go up to Gerizim, do we go to Jerusalem when we’re doing the worship and sacrifice thing?” He says, “Listen, ma’am, salvation is from the Jews.”[5] “Salvation is from the Jews.” And it is! And every gentile one of us needs to remember that: that God in his purpose chose—mysteriously, marvelously—to bring his Messiah through this royal line of David and bring him to the world in that way.

That was why Paul agonized so much over his own people in the book of Romans. When he’s working his theology out at the beginning, he says, “What advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?” He doesn’t say, “Nothing.” No. He says, “Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some [of them] were unfaithful? Does their unfaithfulness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar.”[6] It still remains true. And to the Jew has been given the law and the covenants and the promises. And that’s what makes the prologue of John’s Gospel so devastating: “He came [to] his own, and his own received him not.”[7]

Surely we long for the day when one of the greatest, most horrendous, despicable, effective lies of the Evil One is dealt with in great measure. For what an amazing lie it is that the Evil One has, to an almost exclusive dimension, convinced Jewish people that their problem is one with Jesus, when in actual fact their glory is in Jesus. It is their glory. It is the glory that comes from the very line.

The peace that comes to the heart of the individual that embraces Christ is a peace that has been purchased at great cost. It is a redemption that has been provided by the shedding of blood.

There is a mystery in this. That’s why I think that my forebears in Scotland were so committed to Jewish evangelism. Murray M’Cheyne, who knows what he might have done if he hadn’t died at twenty-nine? But he had gone by the age of twenty-nine to Israel on a number of occasions, so concerned was he for the salvation of the Jew. It’s for the glory of the Jew.

It’s for the light. It’s “a light” for the nations. This is all from the lips of this man by the Holy Spirit. It’s so fantastic, isn’t it? “It’s a light for the nations. I’m holding in my arms a light for the nations. I’m holding in my hands a great torch.” You see, he knew his Bible. Isaiah 49:

[Is it] too light a thing that you should be my servant
 to raise up the tribes of Jacob
 and to bring back the preserved of Israel[?]
I will make you as a light for the nations,
 that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.[8]

And Jesus steps onto the stage of history, and he says, “I am the light of the world.”[9]

And it means not only glory for Israel and light for the nations, but it means peace for the individual: “Lord, now you[’re] letting your servant depart in peace.” Simeon’s saying, “I can now face death in the knowledge of all that is here in this precious bundle, Jesus.” What a picture it is. What a privilege he enjoyed. What a pattern he provides: seeing in Jesus the salvation of God and receiving him for ourselves.

When you read on, on your own, you can realize that Simeon also understood that there was suffering involved in this. He was explaining to them all that would still come. He was the child who would be “appointed for the fall and the rising of many.” “And a sword will pierce through your own soul.” He would be the means whereby the “thoughts [of] many hearts” were “revealed,” and so on. This is not some kinda cozy little verse. No, he’s saying that the peace that comes to the heart of the individual that embraces Christ is a peace that has been purchased at great cost. It is a redemption that has been provided by the shedding of blood. It is a pardon that is found in the one who came as a friend of sinners.

And what a lovely picture it is, of this elderly gentleman—I presume he’s elderly—and he takes the child up in his arms, and he holds him to himself. And in the same way that he embraced Christ in that physical dimension, so each of us must come to embrace him as our own. There’s not a child that was here earlier that will be in heaven just because you as his mom or his dad love Jesus. The grace of God does not run through human veins. Every one of these wee ones needs to embrace Christ for themselves, to find in him a Savior and a Lord and a friend, to grow up and say, “I can actually go to sleep now in peace, because I know that my salvation is found in Jesus. He is a glory for Israel, he is a light for the nations, and he is my friend and my Savior.” And it is to those that he bids a welcome to his table of remembrance.

Father, thank you for the privilege of breaking bread together now. And we pray that you will enable us to do so with a gladness of heart in the awareness of the songs that we’ve already sung. And I pray for any who are here tonight, and they are religious, they are intellectually aware of truths, but they have never come, as it were, to take you at your word and turn to you in repentance and faith. I pray they do so even now, so that as we take Communion together, they may do so in all the reality that you intend. And we ask it humbly in Jesus’ name. Amen.


[1] Francis Procter, A History of the Book of Common Prayer, with a Rationale of Its Offices (Cambridge: Macmillan, 1855), 224.

[2] Isaiah 40:1 (KJV).

[3] Leviticus 12:8 (ESV).

[4] See Acts 4:12.

[5] John 4:20–22 (paraphrased).

[6] Romans 3:1–4 (ESV).

[7] John 1:11 (KJV).

[8] Isaiah 49:6 (ESV).

[9] John 8:12 (ESV).

Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.