The Holy Spirit told Simeon that he would not die until he saw the Messiah. Upon meeting the infant Jesus, Simeon praised God in song. The theme of Simeon’s song is that of the entire Bible: Through Christ, God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves. Alistair Begg reminds us that while God’s gift of salvation is universally presented, it is not automatically applied. He graciously provides the gift—and like Simeon, we should celebrate the hope that the Incarnation brings.
We return to Luke’s gospel this morning for the last time, considering the fourth song of the season. First of all, the Magnificat, sung by Mary. Then Zechariah’s song, then—that was the Benedictus, wasn’t it? And then, the angels’ song, Gloria in excelsis, and now this morning, Simeon’s song, or the Nunc dimittis, depending on where you come from.
Luke 2:25. Again, the Bibles are there—if you want to follow along and check that what I’m saying is in the Bible, then you should definitely do that—Luke 2:25. “Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in 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, Israel.’
The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: ‘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.’” Thanks be to God for his word.
Now just a brief prayer before we think of these things together. Gracious God, what we know not, teach us; what we have not, give us; what we are not, make us. For your Son’s sake. Amen.
Well, I’ve noticed, and I’m sure you have, too, that many of the magazines are telling us the ten greatest things or the hundred greatest things of the last year, or the last decade, or whatever else it is. It’s quite fascinating to see who sang the best songs and so on, and also to find out at least what the journalists think have been the most momentous events of the past twelve months. Certainly, one that fits in every category was the safe landing of the Airbus 320, landing as you will recall, on the Hudson River, an unscheduled landing, three minutes after it had taken off from LaGuardia Airport.
The passengers, who were pulled to safety as Flight 1549 began to sink below the surface, hailed the captain—known now, legendary captain, as Sully—hailed Captain Sully as a savior. And if you recall, there were newspaper headlines and magazine headlines that had Sully’s name and Sully’s picture and then just simply the word, “Savior” or “Salvation” on it. Understandably so, because “salvation” is a picture word. It has wide application that expresses essentially the idea of rescue. So it has been used many, many times in the past twelve months.
It’s been used as an expression of the idea of rescue, being saved from economic collapse as a result of the infusion of funds. At a very routine level, some of you may have said, as you went to pick somebody up from Hopkins Airport, as they got into the car and you welcomed them, you said, “I’m so glad you arrived just now because you have saved me from going around one more time,” when that very special policeman that is there and his colleagues were about their business of welcoming everyone to the Cleveland Hopkins Airport. So that we understand.
But salvation is used in a specific sense as we find it here in the Bible, and this is what it is referencing: it is an expression of the good news, the good news of what God did for us in the incarnate Christ in order to save us from sin, the devil, and death. And that is the significance of the amazing statement that we find being made by Simeon here in chapter 2 of Luke, and verse 30 in particular. He says, “My eyes have seen your salvation.” What could he possibly mean by that? Of all the things that are said when you take a newborn baby into your arms—and you will have said all kinds of things, I am sure as I have done often, out of embarrassment. We don’t know what to say and so we just say, “My, he has his mother’s nose,” or “Look at his cheeks,” or “Can you believe how much dark hair he has,” or whatever else it is—but for Simeon, he had no doubt what he was going to say.
Now you need to remind yourself of what we’re told about Simeon in verse 25. He was a man. He lived in Jerusalem. His name was Simeon. He was righteous and he was devout and he was actually waiting. If people had said, “What are you waiting for, Simeon?” he would have said, “I’m waiting for the consolation of Israel.” What did he mean by that? “I’m waiting for the promises that God has made to his people to be fulfilled. There is a king who is coming. There is a prophet who is coming. There is a priest who is coming, and somehow or another, the kingship and the prophetic role and the role of priest is going to be amalgamated, is going to be unified in one person. And that’s what I’m waiting for.” The people would say, “Where do you get all that stuff from?” He said, “From reading my Bible. I’ve just been reading my Bible. And it’s all there, and that’s why I’m here. I’m waiting, and furthermore, the Holy Spirit has told me that I won’t die until I see this promised salvation.”
This is a promised salvation. It is a prepared salvation. And so when the father and mother come in and he takes the baby Jesus in his arms, he says, “My eyes have seen your salvation.” And it is salvation which is the theme of each of the songs we’ve been considering. Mary’s song was a song about how God was so good to her and she was able, “to rejoice,” as she said, “in God, her Savior.” The story of the song of Zechariah was the song of God’s amazing provision of a Savior and of the role of the forerunner in that salvation. The angels came, bringing the news, “Unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior.” Hence, Gloria in excelsis. And here now in this fourth song, once again it is salvation that is the theme.
But actually we can say better than that, because salvation is not simply the theme of these songs, but it is the theme of the entire Bible. If somebody was to say to you, “Now what is the Bible actually about?” We could start in all kinds of places, couldn’t we, in giving answers. It would be like painting. You could start on one corner or another corner. You could start with one character, with one scene. But if you had to give just one overarching statement concerning the Bible, if they pressed you to just one word, here’s your word: salvation. Salvation. Because when you read the Old Testament, you discover that there are these amazing pictures that are provided of nothing other than salvation.
So what is the story of Noah and the ark? It is the fact that God has come to people who have rebelled against him and he has said, “I have provided for you a place of safety and salvation, if you will listen to my servant, Noah, and get in the ark.” What is the story of the Exodus from Egypt? When God’s people are set free from the charging hordes of Pharaoh and his armies, and they pass through the Red Sea in safety, it is the story of salvation. What is the story of Gideon and his depleted little army of 300, being victorious over the hordes that were against him? It is the story of salvation. What is the story of Jonah and the whale? I could see by your eyes, they’re going, “I hope he doesn’t know any more of these stories. This is going on forever.” But what is the—actually I know a lot of these stories and so do you—but what is the story of Jonah and the whale? It is the story of salvation.
And when you look at these pictures—and many of them in religious art have become pictures, haven’t they? You can go to galleries and see these things depicted. They’re there for generations to view. In each case, the people were saved, not on account of saving themselves with a wee bit of help from God, but they were delivered wholly by God’s work. Salvation is not the story of men and women saving ourselves, doing our best, and asking God to give us a hand. The story of salvation is the story of God doing for us what we are patently unable to do for ourselves: to be saved from sin and to be saved from the consequences of sin.
So as I said a moment or two ago, salvation is our theme—the theme of these songs, the theme of the Bible, and the closing theme of our study for 2009—and what better theme could there be? For some of you, this will be a primer. You have never actually thought along these lines. For others of you, it will be a reminder. And here are your navigational aids: four prepositions. This is how we will make our way through our thoughts concerning salvation. The propositions are as follows: for, from, by, and through. For, from, by, and through. You don’t need to remember them. I will go through them one at a time.
First of all, then: for. Who is this salvation for? Or, if you like, salvation for whom? Well, if your Bible is open, you can see that Simeon points out that this was not an exclusive privilege for Israel, but it was for the Gentiles too. Indeed, it’s interesting how the Gentiles come first, that God reverses things. It’s one of the great themes of Luke’s gospel incidentally, how he reverses things. People think he’s gonna go for the religious folks, and he doesn’t. He goes for the irreligious folks. People think he’s going to go for the people who are doing their best, but he doesn’t. He goes for the people who are apparently doing their worst. And here he says, “It is a light for the Gentiles and it is for the glory of the people of Israel.”
Well, this is keeping with the angels’ song, isn’t it? It was “good news of great joy which will be for all the people.” And once again, we need to see in this and that you’re helped in verse 31 by the little word, “prepared” there: “my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared.” This doesn’t just come, as it were, out of the blue, but this has been part of God’s preparatory work. And so when you read the prophets, you come upon statements like Isaiah 49:6, where God says, “I will make you as a light for the nations to be my salvation unto the end of the earth.” To be my salvation for the nations to the ends of the earth.
This is something that actually troubles people who are wondering about Christianity, and I understand why it would be troublesome to them. And this is what they say: “Why do you Christians have to try and make everybody else Christians? Why can’t you just content yourselves? After all, there are billions of you in the world. Don’t you have enough? I mean, can’t you just stop?” And what’s the answer to that? The answer is, no we can’t. “Why?” Because we have good news. “Oh yeah, but there’s other good news elsewhere.” Yes. But this good news, if you’ll consider it, is better news than all the other news. We’re not here to deny that there is good news in this and in this and in this. We’re simply here to say that this good news is like no other news ever heard by mankind. And furthermore, our captain, the captain of our salvation, has told us to go out into all the ends of the earth and to tell everybody about this and to make disciples of all the nations.
And that’s why eventually when God wraps everything up, it will be as we began our service, with a great company that no one can number, from every nation and tribe and people and language. That the message of the gospel, the good news, is universal. It’s universal. It’s for everyone. It excludes nobody. Nobody’s left out. There’s no people group you go to and say, “Oh, this good news isn’t for you.” There’s no one you could ever meet and have a coffee with and say, “Well, I don’t need to tell you about this, ’cause either you don’t need it or you won’t want it.” No, it’s good news for everyone. It is for everyone. The good news of salvation transcends racial, social, and cultural barriers. That’s who it’s for.
Secondly: salvation for whom, salvation from what? From what? “You’ve saved me from economic collapse…” I understand it was economic collapse from which I needed to be saved. “You’ve saved me from driving ’round and ’round and ’round at the airport…” I’ve realized what you saved me from. But when the Bible talks about salvation, what is it talking about? Well, it’s very, very clear. And we need just to go back to chapter 1—it’s one page over if you have the Bible open—back to Zechariah’s song, because he gives it to us perfectly there in verse 77. Notice once again about the preparatory work of God, this time in the work of John the Baptist, and this child, John the Baptist, is going to prepare the way for him. And what is he going to do? He’s going to give his people the knowledge of salvation, and here’s the key phrase: “through the forgiveness of their sins.” Now you see if you think about this, it makes sense that this salvation is for everyone because everyone is in need of a Savior. At least everyone I have ever met is in need of a Savior. You may have met somebody who is not in need of a Savior, but I doubt it, because the Bible tells us that there is no one who is not in need of a Savior, and if we’re honest, we recognize that.
We don’t love God with all of our hearts. We don’t serve him as our Creator and our King. In fact, people often say, “Well I do my best. I live by the Sermon on the Mount. I try to keep the Ten Commandments.” Well, let’s just take one commandment. Let’s take the first commandment and see how we do with the first commandment. What is the first commandment? “You shall have no other gods before me.” In other words, God says, “You’re not allowed to worship anyone or anything other than me. I am the exclusive domain of your adoration and your selflessness.”
“So does that mean that I’m not able to worship even good things?” Correct. “Like nature?” Yes. I can love it. I can thank God for it. I can’t worship it. “What about my wife?” I can love her. I can thank God for her. I cannot worship her. “What about my career or my success?” I can thank God for it, and I can give myself diligently to it, but it cannot become a God substitute. And what the Bible says is something that is hard for us to face up to—and indeed, by nature, we don’t face up to it—because it says that we’re all idolaters, that we actually all worship things which crave our attention. And we might put it as simply as this: whatever my heart clings to and to which I entrust myself, that is really my god. Whatever my heart clings to and to which I entrust myself, that is really my god.
An idol is anything other than God that we regard as essential to our peace, our self-image, our contentment, or our acceptability: if I’m going to be acceptable, this is how it’s going to be; if I’m going to know peace, this is where I must worship, and so on. And these are heart-level substitutes for God, and when you worship a heart-level substitute for God, you end up with a heart-level substitute salvation. It cannot satisfy. That’s the reason for the salvation provided in Jesus. What the Bible says is that the true and living God, the Creator of the universe who stands outside of time, who created time itself, who created every person, every creature on the planet, that this God, this Creator, he knows how life works. He knows how society may be ordered in justice and in righteousness.
And all of that transformation of life and family and future, all of that infusion and discovery of hope in a world that is increasingly hopeless, is to be found in the accomplishment provided in the transforming power of Jesus, the servant. And that is again what you find when you go back into the prophets. I’m gonna leave that to you for your homework, otherwise we’ll be here much longer than any of us want to be. But if you go back and you read, for example, Isaiah chapter 42, and if you don’t have a Bible, you can take the one that’s in front of you and take it home—that’s my Christmas gift to you, and that’s not an invitation to some of you rascals going home with seven Bibles, but it is a genuine invitation to somebody who would like to take a Bible home; it is yours to take—and you go to Isaiah 42 and you’ll read there of the servant of God and let me tell you what the servant does. This is what it says: “He opens our eyes from blindness, he frees us from prison, and he releases us from the dungeon.” Opens our eyes, frees us from prison, and releases us from the dungeon.
And someone says, “Well, I’ve got no interest in that. I can see clearly. I’m not trapped by anything or anyone. I’m not living in a dungeon.” Really? You never find yourself saying, “If I could only turn back time. If I could only be set free from this. I feel as though I’m trapped. I feel as though there’s no possibility of me getting out. There’s no hope for the future, and when I look behind me, I’m just ten steps behind everyone and everything.”
Well, that’s what Jesus came to do. That’s why when Simeon takes the baby in his arms, he doesn’t just say, “Oh, what a lovely little baby.” He says, “My eyes have seen your salvation.” You see, because the people in the day of Simeon thought they knew what they needed to be saved from the way people today do. The Jewish people thought that what they needed was salvation from the oppression of Rome. If only the political structures of their lives could be sorted out and these Roman people could be vanquished then they could live in peace and in tranquility.
And I meet people all the time, and that’s what they think. “If we could just get a few things sorted out here—if I could change my boss, if I could get rid of a couple of people from the sales team, if we could get the political thing sorted out, a few economic things—I think it’d just be absolutely super. Just, I’d just be sitting there saying, ‘Yes, let me have another slice of cheesecake and two large pieces of ice cream with it as well. I’m all set.’”
But if you’ve ever driven in your car and been honest with yourself, if you’ve ever put your head on your pillow at night and thought about stuff, then you may have concluded as I and others have concluded—and certainly as C. S. Lewis quite marvelously concluded—that the real dungeon in which we find ourselves, the real liberation we need, is a liberation from the corruption and from the squalor of our own hearts. That the real problem we have is not an economic problem, it’s not an intellectual problem, it’s not an educational problem, it is actually a problem of idolatry.
C. S. Lewis, when he became a Christian at Oxbridge in—what was it, the 1930s?—he says having decided he was an atheist and banished God from his life, he finally was just pursued and pursued and pursued. He said the hounds of heaven were on him. It’s a wonderful picture of God coming, easing in on a person. And then he wrote in Surprised by Joy, his little biography: “For the first time,” he says, “I examined myself with a serious practical purpose and there I found what appalled me. A zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, and a harem of fondled hatreds.”
Salvation from what? Salvation from sin. Sin? Yes, the human declaration of independence from God and the suppression of the truth of God.
Thirdly, and quickly: by. If that is the human predicament and humanity is unable to extricate itself, what possible hope is there? That’s the good news. You see, the good news is good news once we’ve understood the bad news. And it is because the bad news is so seldom conveyed to people, that they reject the good news because it all sounds so trivial. And it is not the responsibility of the teacher or the preacher to convince people of how bad they are. That is the responsibility of God, who shines into our lives his light and goes into the nooks and crannies of our conscience and brings us to the point, like C. S. Lewis, where we say, “You know, I’ve decided to examine myself, and I found out that really my heart is corrupted. That my heart is selfish.”
And then this good news. Listen to how Paul put it in one verse in Ephesians 2. It’s verse 8. “It is by grace,” he said, “that you have been saved, through faith, and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Salvation by grace. We need salvation. We’re unable to make amends for ourselves. And here is the great news, and here is how the Christmas part and the Easter part fit together: just when it seems hopeless, we discover that the one against whom we have offended by filling our lives with substitute gods, that one has provided in Jesus the atonement that our sin has made necessary. And the story of Easter is the story of God bringing together, reconciling two parties that are at war with each other. God, in his righteous anger against sin—and you ought not to think of that as some capricious fiery outburst; you should think of God’s righteous anger in the way that a very good surgical oncologist here will attack the cancer if he discovers it in your body—he will attack it fiercely because he wants it to be removed because of his love for you and his interest in you. That is God’s reaction to sin. He is opposed to it. We are opposed to God, worshipping ourselves or our stuff or our success or whatever it might be, even good things, and there is a great standoff.
Unless somebody takes the initiative in this standoff, these parties will be polarized forever. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believe[s] in Him, should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Here’s the good news. Not by works of righteousness, not by turning over a new leaf, not by loosing myself in some great cosmic all not by finding in myself the answers, but rather by looking away. Grace means that God mercifully provides for us instruction—and redemption. And that’s why we were singing, for example, “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.” I hope it makes a little more sense to you now: How deep the Father’s love for us, how vast beyond all measure, that He should take, make his only Son the atonement for our sins. “Oh, I see.”
Finally, final preposition. (Did I call them propositions earlier? I don’t know. Well, that’s good. I hope I didn’t ’cause … I’m coming to a proposition, okay?) Four prepositions and a final proposition. Here we go.
Salvation for whom? All the nations. All the people. From what? From our sinful rebellion against God. By what? By God’s grace. Through what? Through faith. Through faith. People talk about faith all the time. They talk about “Well, I just have to get my faith going.” What does that mean? It sounds like starting your car in the morning. Or, “I just have a tremendous amount of faith.” Faith in what? “Well, I just have faith.” Yes, but faith is nothing. Faith is simply a conduit. Faith is not an entity. You can have as much … We’ve got a little pond in our neighborhood. We’re walking past it yesterday, some of us. And someone said, “Maybe I’ll go skate on that pond.” I don’t think so. Now the person said, “But I have a tremendous amount of faith.” I said, “I don’t care how much faith you’ve got. You weigh 170 pounds and the pond is only frozen to three-eighths of an inch. Faith will not save you. That faith will drown you. Go ahead.” But if we walk down the street and the pond was frozen to a depth of three feet, then any one of us—or all of us—could have gone skating on the pond.
It is not the amount of faith; it is the foundation or the basis of faith. And when Paul says that you are saved—“salvation, by grace,” God’s intervention, “through faith, and that not of yourselves”—he says that even the whole experience of turning from myself to God is actually wrapped up in his gracious favor.
But here’s the thing, and with this, we conclude: although the offer of salvation is universal, it is clearly not received by everyone indiscriminately or automatically. It is offered universally, but it is not received automatically. Some people say that, and you may have heard that as the Christmas story, and you walk out and you just feel there’s a missing link, and you’re right, there is. And the story goes something like this: “We’re so glad that you came here for Christmas and I know you’ve perhaps been reading the Old Testament. God was really ticked off in the Old Testament, but we are now in the New Testament, and he’s really feeling a lot better about everything and also about you. And I know you’ve made a complete hash of everything, but it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t care. Just go out and enjoy yourself and have another eggnog.” And you walk out the door and say, “That doesn’t make any sense to me at all.” And you’re dead right. It doesn’t.
No, you see, the story is that I have offended against God, and that on account of his kindness, he has pursued me. Through my friends, through my family, through my books, through my songs, through my church, through my university education, through my disappointments, through my failures, through all the bits and pieces that make up the me that is me. I suddenly look and I say, “It almost appears as though he has been following me down right to this moment.” Yes, he has. And what does he offer to you? He offers to you a gift, and that gift has to be received.
If you go home and read this passage again, you will realize that there is no sense in which everybody is swept up in this. In fact, Simeon says in his song that this child will be responsible for the rising and the falling of many in Israel and he will be a dividing line. On the one side of the line, we keep him at arm’s length. On the other side of the line, we welcome him to our lives the way Simeon welcomed him to his arms. On the one side, we exalt ourselves and say we have no need of him. On the other side, we debase ourselves and say we have every need of him. And the story line of the Bible is the story line of God calling us to himself by grace through faith.
Well, it happened to me yesterday—I hope you don’t think this is a contrived sermon illustration; it did actually happen, I have witnesses to let you know that it did—but I was sitting adjacent to the Christmas tree, and it’s Boxing Day in Britain and the colonies, but over here it’s just the day after Christmas. And I looked down and this wee box was sitting under the tree, just at my right hand. And I, and I picked it up and it has an envelope in it and I pulled it to the side, and it says “Ali” on it. “Oh,” I said, “that’s fantastic.” I said, “There’s one that I haven’t opened.” I still haven’t opened it. I know what’s in it; I shook it. I can lose these very easily with a five-iron or a three iron or any iron at all in my bag, so I don’t need to open it to find out what it is. But I thought to myself, “I wonder if there won’t just be somebody there tomorrow morning at Parkside, and they suddenly—it dawns on you—go, “Oh, there’s one I haven’t opened.”
“The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ,” his Son. For who, for whom? For whoever believes in Him. That includes you and me. From what? From our god substitutes. From our suppression of the truth. By what? By his amazing grace and kindness. Not by anything we have done. And through what? Through reaching out the hand that simply says, “I accept what you have offered, and I embrace you the way Simeon embraced you, and I look upon you, Lord Jesus Christ, and I say today, ‘Hey, my eyes have seen your salvation.’”
And in the life that is embraced by God in that way, things change. Prior to that, the Bible says that we’re without hope and without God in the world. We may not feel that all day every day, but eventually when we look out on our lives, we say, “I don’t really know if this is going anywhere. I don’t even know if this means anything.” And that not because of our disappointments; that often on the basis of our successes.
But when we are born again to a living hope, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, then all of our lives are reoriented around the wonder of what God has done. So that instead of being hopeless, we are hopeful. If this message of salvation is as has been outlined, then I should not, I dare not, stand at arm’s length to such an amazing offer, to such wonderful good news. I daren’t leave, as it were, under the tree an unopened gift—especially with my name on it.
“And now unto him who is able to keep us from falling, and to present us faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God, our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, now and [forevermore].” Amen.
 Luke 1:46–49 (paraphrased).
 Luke 2:11 (ESV).
 Luke 2:10 (NIV 1984).
 Exodus 20:3 (NIV 1984).
 Isaiah 42:7 (paraphrased).
 C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (London: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1955), 226 (paraphrased).
 John 3:16 (KJV).
 Stuart Townend, “How Deep the Father’s Love For Us,” (Thankyou Music, 1995) (paraphrased).
 Ephesians 2:8 (NIV 1984).
 Romans 6:23 (NIV 1984).
 Jude 24–25 (KJV).