February 14, 1999
Is it possible to be neutral about Christ? Simeon clearly didn’t think so, prophecying that Jesus would be “a sign to be opposed.” Alistair Begg explains that Simeon’s prophecy meant that Jesus would divide all who know Him into those who follow Him and those who reject Him. Christ’s words about Himself make it impossible to describe Him as only a gentle messenger of peace. Instead, He declares Himself to be Lord of all.
Sermon Transcript: Print
We’re in Luke 2, and we’re in verse 33:
“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.’
“There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four.”
This is not a puzzle, incidentally, but it is a bit of a puzzle. For the life of me, I can’t work out what age she was. I don’t know if you can, because it’s not real clear. I don’t think she could have just been eighty-four, ’cause that’s not “very old.” I mean, eighty-four is old, but it doesn’t qualify as very old, certainly not in biblical terminology. So, if she lived with her husband seven years after her marriage and then she was a widow until she was eighty-four, and she was married when she was fifteen, let’s say—that’s eighty-four, ninety-four, ninety-nine, plus seven, puts her at what? A hundred and six. It doesn’t really matter. But anyway, there it is. You can spend time on it in your home Bible study group. I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful time with it.
“She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.”
Father, unless you come and help us now, we’re stuck with, the next twenty-five minutes or so, listening just to a man speak—and we’ve long since determined that we’re not remotely interested in this. So our earnest cry, in speaking and in listening—for we all listen—is that through your Word we might make known the mighty deeds of God and thereby continue in our worship, so that in both our proclamation and in our response we may glorify you and learn to enjoy you forever. To this end we seek you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Young parents very quickly become accustomed to the approach of strangers, who will often offer their congratulations and their observations and say kind things about your children. In Scotland in an earlier era, when our children were tiny and before we came here to America, it was customary for people to put money in your pram—that is, in the child’s pram. And it’s regarded now as a rather unsavory thing to do, because money is regarded as dirty. But frankly, as a Scotsman, I enjoyed it very much indeed. And I was tempted just to go out with my pram with nothing in it at all in the hope that people would just fill it up with money. So, I was glad when the people approached, and sometimes, depending on where the men were coming from, you could actually pick up quite an earning. And it was really a wonderful tradition, and I’m sorry to hear that it’s passing away.
Now, in the case of Mary and Joseph, of course, we would anticipate that there would have been many kind and tender greetings expressed to them. And in one sense, they were already becoming very familiar with the dramatic nature of what had been entrusted to them in the gift of this son. And yet it’s striking, is it not, that here in the thirty-third verse, following the prayer of Simeon, we read that “the child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him”? In other words, the events of the angels’ words and the gathering of the shepherds and so on had not dulled them in any way. They were still very alert. They were still wondering and they were marveling at the unfolding saga into which they had been thrust by the intervention of God.
They presumably are wondering at the impact of the words of Simeon: that this child of theirs is going to be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” That was perhaps a whole new thought for them. They had maybe to this point been thinking in nationalistic terms, as Jews, but here we discover that this salvation is “in the sight of all people,” and it is universal in its impact.
Now, in verse 34, Simeon proceeds with a word of prophecy which is going to make a tremendous impact, particularly on Mary. And I think you will agree that it is quite interesting that in verse 34 it says, “Then Simeon blessed them,” plural, “and said to Mary, his mother,” singular. He addresses his word directly to the mother.
Now, you will also know, if you study your Bible, that Joseph very quickly fades from the scene. We don’t read much about Joseph after this at all. And some of the commentators are very straightforward: they say that Joseph died before Jesus ever began his earthly ministry. I’m not sure that it is possible to conclude that from the instruction of Scripture, but nevertheless, I think it is a fair inference. And if that is to be the case, then we can understand why it would be that the Spirit of God would direct this man to approach Mary particularly, insofar as she would be the one who would be bearing the brunt of what he was telling her.
Incidentally, all that we know about this man Simeon we discover here. And you have before you the record of who he is. He was “righteous and devout.” There is no indication that he was a religious figure or that he was a priest—rather, that he was an ordinary man who had an extraordinary devotion. And, of course, God delights to pick up ordinary men and women and to infuse them with an extraordinary devotion, so that Simeon is recognizable for two things, primarily: one, on account of his character, we are told that he was “righteous and devout”; and two, on account of the controlling influence of the Holy Spirit in his life. “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” How this had taken place we are not told—simply that it had, and that he was moving in the temple precincts, prompted by the Spirit of God, and he found himself, in obedience to the Spirit’s prompting, in the right place at the right time.
Now, to the extent that Mary may have been caught up in the wonder of all of this—this elderly gentleman taking her baby, holding him in his arms, and then saying these words over him—her brows would now be beginning to furrow when he speaks directly to her and gives this word of prophecy concerning Jesus. And he tells the mother essentially this: Jesus is going to be the great divider. Jesus is going to represent a crossroads in the lives of those he encounters. Jesus is going to, by virtue of his life and his death and all of his ministry, be the kind of individual that people find it impossible to be neutral around. It will not be possible for men and women to be neutral in relationship to Jesus. And tonight, as we gather in this room, it will be impossible for any of us to leave this place neutral concerning Christ. We will either decide for him or we will decide against him. And the idea of a “not proven” verdict will, of course, side with the nays, as it did earlier this week in Washington.
Now, we shouldn’t be surprised about this. When Jesus walks out onto the stage of human history, he says something very similar to this. For example, in John 12:47. This is Jesus speaking, and you see if this doesn’t sound to be fulfilling the word of prophecy that Simeon brings. Let’s start at verse 46. He says, “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.” Remember, the word of Zechariah was that he has come to those who live “in the shadow of death,” to those who are “living in [the] darkness.” Jesus says, “Here I am. I am the light. I call out to those who are in the darkness, and those who believe in me should not be staying in the darkness.” “As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words.” Notice: “That very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day. For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.”
So, by dint of the prophecy here of Simeon and the actual ministry of Christ, we learn that this is something vastly different from a Jesus who can be accommodated by all and any in polite society. And it is, of course, this Jesus who is increasingly on offer in our contemporary culture. I mentioned this morning the presidential Prayer Breakfast, and I don’t know how many of you saw that. I would guess that none attended it, although there may have been some who were present. I watched it at the end of the day on C-SPAN and found that I couldn’t get off to sleep as a result of having done so. And I was troubled in the night, and I awakened in the morning, and I came, and I wrote—for my own benefit, to try and get clarity in my mind—one or two pages, which has become our next TFL letter. But it began like this, and I want to make an observation or two to illustrate what I’m saying.
I said to myself… I took a pen, and I wrote, “Shouldn’t we be happy…” I wrote it in the first person singular to begin with, and then I changed it to plural. “Shouldn’t we be happy that we live in a country where the highest officials in the land gather annually for the presidential Prayer Breakfast?” The answer to that is yes. “Is there not cause for thanksgiving in the boldness of Steve Largent and his colleagues in government who were responsible for convening this event?” Yes. “Was it not gratifying to hear the Scripture read and quoted so frequently?” Yes. “Aren’t we grateful that Max Lucado, as the keynote speaker, spoke so clearly about Jesus?” Yes. “We must surely answer to all of this in the affirmative. But despite every encouraging sign, I wonder if there isn’t at the same time cause for alarm.”
And then what I did was to go on and identify the way in which the English language, and particular biblical language, was obscured in its usage. And any of you who saw it—and it’s a bit of a waste of time for those who didn’t see it, because I’ve got to describe the whole event to make sense of this, but I’ll continue, since I’ve begun—but you had, for example, the juxtaposition of Dr. Laura Schlessinger reading from the book of Deuteronomy as a now-Orthodox Jew, you had Lieberman leading out in prayer, you had Senator John Glenn reading his two favorite New Testament passages and Old Testament passages, and you had all manner of people up there saying all manner of things. And at the heart of it all, there was a very commendable message from John 13 about how Jesus washed the disciples’ feet—which, of course, you would recognize to be something that Jesus did in prospect of Calvary. And when he began to wash the feet, Peter said, “I don’t want you to wash my feet. This isn’t right.” And Jesus said, “Unless I wash you, Peter, you have no part in me.”
Question: What does that mean? Does that mean “Unless I wash your feet, you’re not going to be with me anymore? If you’re going to be a nuisance now, Peter, I’m going to throw you off the team. If I don’t get to wash your feet, you’re gone.” No! Because the foot washing was pointing to the cleansing that Christ would accomplish in the shedding of his blood in his death on the cross, so that the message of the foot washing is first a message to those who are the followers of Christ regarding the way in which we should treat one another, with a servant attitude; but above and beyond that, it is a foreshadowing of the fact that we who follow Christ are those who are cleansed as a result of the shedding of his blood.
However, if one in speaking from John 13 about the washing of the water fails to make the connection with the blood of the cross, then it is possible for everyone to applaud the sermon. And that is exactly what happened. Everybody from the president down stood and gave it a standing ovation. Because the message was, summarized succinctly: “There are certain problems in life that can only be solved with a towel and a basin.” And so people said, “Well, isn’t this wonderful? Jesus was surrounded by cantankerous, cowardly people, and the way that he dealt with them was to wash their feet and display his humility.” Implication: “You, too, Mr. President and others, are surrounded by cantankerous and cowardly people. Therefore, let me tell you what you need: you need a towel, and you need a basin.”
Now, you see, that’s only good in as far as it goes. And if it doesn’t cross the bridge, it’s actually no good at all. Because people pour into that their own meaning. Therefore, Mr. Lieberman can use Lord as Yahweh, Steve Largent can use Lord as the Lord Jesus Christ, Laura Schlessinger can use it any way she chooses, and everyone who’s listening assumes what they want to assume in the obfuscation of the English language. And that’s exactly what happened.
And so I wrote, “By failing to make the connection, we can easily find concurrence on the part of all and any who are prepared to acknowledge the rightness and helpfulness of following the humble example of a Galilean carpenter. Liberal theologians of the nineteenth century invented a sentimental Jesus who was all for peace and harmony and social justice. Such a Jesus, who proclaims the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, poses little problem for the average individual.”
Isn’t that true? People are not put off by a nice Jesus. “‘We are the world, we are the people, and the world’s going to be a better place.’ And Jesus can help, and so can a number of others.” Contemporary humanism is well prepared to accommodate a Jesus who is the supreme example of self-giving service to his followers. And it is in this climate that we face the subtle temptation, and often blatant appeal, to allow for the possibility that we might all be right, and certainly to abandon any claims that Christianity has got it right and others have got it wrong.
Listen to this, young people, because at school you will face this all the time. And consider this: it was a refusal to do this that led to the persecution of the believers in the first century. If the Christians would have contented themselves with the thought that Jesus was being accommodated in the pantheon of Roman deities, then they could have relaxed. But it was precisely their unwillingness to accept such a compromise that led them to be beaten, imprisoned, and martyred. And therefore, it is absolutely crucial that we now do what they and others throughout history have done—namely, to declare unequivocally the exclusivity of the claims of Jesus Christ. And this is the message that cuts and offends.
The apostles never faced death for reminding people of the humility of a Galilean carpenter, and neither will we. You can go in tomorrow to any place, any context whatsoever, and tell people about the altruism and the philanthropy and the kindness and the genteelness of this Galilean carpenter. They may ignore you; they may go for coffee, whatever it is; but they will not fight you. But what you cannot do is insist that “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified,” said Peter to the crowd, “both Lord and Christ.” That kind of talk will not be tolerated in the polite conversation of Washington breakfasts. But it is that gospel that we are called to preach—and “not,” as Paul says, “with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”
Now, we prayed before the service. We said, “Lord, when we tell others about this good news, let us make sure, by your help, that the offense is in the gospel and not in ourselves.” It’s not difficult for me to create offense. That comes naturally. It’s not difficult for me to be a stumbling block to people. I can do that without a great deal of endeavor. But that is not as it’s to be. It is to be that as we present this word that is spoken here by Simeon to Mary concerning Christ, that men and women are not able to say, “So what?” They find themselves sitting in their chairs, grabbing underneath the pew, and digging their fingernails into it because they’re so infuriated by the notion—or they found themselves bowing down before this Christ because they are so thrilled at his wonder and his mercy. But an innocuous preaching of the gospel can get a standing ovation on any occasion and send people out the exact same way in which they arrived.
If neutrality is not an option, then how in the world is it possible to preach this Christ and draw neutrality as the majority response? Presumably, it is because we are not preaching Christ the way Christ is revealed, the way the apostles declared him, and in the power of God the Holy Spirit.
Now, if you think that that’s a little harsh, that is the word of God through his servant Jeremiah in the time of Jeremiah, centuries before Christ. You don’t need to turn to it, but let me read what God says about the people of his day through the prophet Jeremiah. He says,
“From the least to the greatest,
all are greedy for gain;
prophets and priests alike,
all practice deceit.”
He says, “The whole thing is shot. My representatives,” he says, “are up the Suwannee River.”
“They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say,
when there is no peace.
Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct?
No, they have no shame at all;
they do not even know how to blush.
So they will fall among the fallen;
they will be brought down when I punish them,”
says the Lord.
And it is impossible to go on Christian radio now, to a talk show, without somebody phoning up and saying, “Why are we in the dreadful position we are in? And what is going to happen to us next?” And one of the observations that is most unpalatable is the observation of Jeremiah 6, and that is that we heal the wounds of the people lightly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace, and people walk out the door, but no, they’re not challenged, and they’re not changed.
Now, something is therefore wrong. Because the word of prophecy is: “This child is destined to cause the [rising] and [the falling] of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against.” So, he says, there’s a stone, and it’s Christ, and people will either stumble over it, or they will stand on it. They will either fall down; they will either bow beneath him; they will be glad of the opportunity to repent and to believe, to enjoy fellowship with him and peace with others; or his presence will be doom to them.
You could read for your homework in Isaiah chapter 8; you have this very picture. To some, he is a stone that they trip over. He is a rock of stumbling. He’s a trap and a snare. You have it not only in Isaiah 8, but you also have it in the portion I was just quoting from in Jeremiah chapter 6:
Therefore this is what the Lord says:
“I will put obstacles before this people.
Fathers and sons alike will stumble over them;
neighbors and friends will perish.”
This is what the Lord says.
Does that sound like a nice little talk for nice little people in Washington, DC? I fear I would only have one chance there. But I’d like one chance. I’d never be back—never back—but just once I’d like to say, “‘This is what the Lord said: “I will put obstacles before this people. Fathers and sons alike will stumble over them; neighbors and friends will perish.”’ Now, let me tell you the solution, dear friends, that God has created for that circumstance.” And then we go to the gospel. Then they understand: “There is one to whom I must run. For if I don’t run to him, I will fall over him.” And tonight, as you listen to these people being baptized, neutrality is not an option. You will either run to the Christ of whom they speak, or you will fall over the Christ of whom they speak. But you won’t be able to go out the door and say, “Hey, I can take it or leave it.”
The picture is clear. It’s as though a rock has been put across the road to block the traveler from danger, but the traveler goes on his merry way, and in carelessness or in scorn, he refuses the warning, and he stumbles to his death. Peter picks it up in 1 Peter 2, and he says, “Yes, they stumble at the Word of God for in their hearts they are unwilling to obey it—which makes stumbling a foregone conclusion.” That’s J. B. Phillips. That is a great phrase: “For in their hearts they are unwilling to obey it—which makes stumbling a foregone conclusion.” So, the strong and the mighty who rely on their own merit will come crashing down because in their pride, they do not realize their sin; they do not take refuge in Christ. But the humble who fall at his feet in confession and faith will be those who are raised up to eternal life. Men fall solely on account of their own guilt, and men rise solely on account of God’s grace.
Well, that’s the stone. Notice the sign. I’ll just bash through this here. The sign: “a sign that will be spoken against.” God is in the business of signs: rainbows, and pillars of cloud and fire, and blood on the doorposts, and serpents on poles. And his people understood signs. So Jesus in his words and in his miracles, his character, his teaching, and certainly in his death, was a conspicuous sign. He himself said, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, [so] that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” It doesn’t say that the Son of Man was lifted up so the people, knowing that he was lifted up, will have eternal life just by the knowledge of it. No. It is on account of our believing in him, coming to trust in him, to rely upon him, to stake our destiny on him. Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am [the one I claim to be].”
But he was “a sign” that was “spoken against.” The religious leaders of the day were always muttering and complaining. A right grumpy lot they were. “This man goes in,” they said to one another, “he welcomes sinners, and he eats with them.” I’ve never preached on that statement by the Pharisees, but I plan to. I just decided a few moments before the worship began. I love that. I’m going to preach a sermon on that. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” What a great word that is! I just don’t know where I’m going to get to say it, but I’m looking for a chance to say it: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Religious orthodoxy used that to condemn Christ. They used it to say, “He couldn’t be the Messiah, because the Messiah’ll just be with religious people. The Messiah will be with us; he will be like us.” And they spoke against him. When he cast out demons, they said he did it by the power of the devil himself. They abused him, and they mocked him in the trial, and the multitude scorned him at the cross. And through it all, the Lord Jesus was the sign by which God was making known to man the fact of his guilt and his doom and was making known to man the only way of salvation for the penitent.
He is “a sign” that is “spoken against.” He’s as spoken against tonight as he ever was. We say it all the time, but it’s true: People do not use Buddha as a swear word. They do not use Krishna as a swear word. People don’t jam their fingers in the door and go, “Oh, Krishna!” They don’t. They take the name of Christ upon their lips. I haven’t seen any satanic cult with T-shirts taking the scales of Islam and putting them upside down on a T-shirt in denial of the convictions of the Islamic faith. But it is an inverted crucifix which is the symbol of satanic cults. Why? ’Cause it is “a sign” that is “spoken against.” And where did all these little fish come on the back of cars, inverted, with Darwin’s name put in right in the middle? Why? ’Cause he is “a sign” that is “spoken against.”
A stone upon which men and women take their stand or stumble, a sign that is spoken against, and then, notice, “And a sword,” he says, “will pierce your own soul.” How Mary must have wondered at that! What could this possibly mean? Driving home the magnitude of the resistance and rejection of people to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Every mother will wince when her children are maligned or demeaned, especially if there is no basis in the things that are said. But for Mary, this was to be true. Can you imagine what it was to be the mother of Christ? To listen in the bazaars and in the thoroughfares of life and hear your son maligned continually by the religious leaders? For him to increasingly become the focus of their hatred? To have words surfacing in various places that they were hatching a plot to kill your son? To think of him sleeping outdoors, despite the lovely home you gave him in Nazareth, despite the enjoyment that he had in the carpenter’s place? To think of him saying, “Foxes have holes and birds … have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head”?
Every mother’s going to be concerned about her boy. Every mother’s going to put her head on the pillow at night and say, “I wonder where he is, and I wonder how he is.” And how it must have hurt her to think of him being isolated by the envy of people, by persecution, by death threats, and surely overwhelmed with sorrow in the crucifixion itself. And if the sword had never pierced her own soul before the moment that her son spoke to her from the cross, then surely it pierced her soul in that moment as he looks from the cross and says, “Woman, behold thy son!” and to the disciple whom he loved, John, “[Disciple,] behold [your] mother!” “Was there ever [kinder] shepherd, half so [tender], half so sweet?”
Why would people malign Jesus? Why would people use his name as a curse? What did he ever do to deserve such treatment? See, there is no answer, save that all hell is unleashed against Calvary.
And so he says, “And men and women will reveal the thoughts of their hearts by their response to the Lord Jesus.” That’s verse 35: “The thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” There is nothing that will reveal what’s going on inside a person quite as much as their acceptance or rejection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Either you and I tonight are humble enough to cry, “God be merciful to me [the] sinner,” or we are so full of ourselves that we are prepared to stand and pray, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men.”
So, the thoughts are revealed. And then he gives us this wonderful, immediate illustration of the thoughts being revealed in this lovely old lady Anna, who, despite the sorrow of her bereavement, wasn’t bitter; who, despite her old age, she hadn’t lost hope. And what was the key? She was in touch with God, she was giving thanks to God, and she was telling others about God. She “worshiped night and day,” giving thanks to God, and she spoke to all who were looking for the redemption of Israel about the Lord Jesus Christ.
What a lovely elderly lady! And the thoughts of her heart are revealed there. And the thoughts of your hearts and mine are revealed in our reaction to Christ tonight. Neutrality is not an option. We either stumble over him in our unbelief, or we take a stand with him in childlike faith.
Father, we ask that you will, then, use these moments that remain in our worship, in the words that will be spoken, to drive home to us the truth that we’ve been considering from your Word. And we pray that you will stir within us in such a way that the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts may be acceptable in your sight, for you alone are our strength and our Redeemer. And in Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
 Luke 2:32 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 2:31 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 2:25 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 2:26 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 1:79 (NIV 1984).
 John 12:47–50 (NIV 1984).
 John 13:6–8 (paraphrased).
 Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, “We Are the World” (1985). Paraphrased.
 Acts 2:36 (NIV 1984).
 1 Corinthians 1:17 (NIV 1984).
 Jeremiah 6:13 (NIV 1984).
 Jeremiah 6:14–15 (NIV 1984).
 See Isaiah 8:14; Matthew 21:43–44; 1 Peter 2:8.
 Jeremiah 6:21–22 (NIV 1984).
 1 Peter 2:8 (Phillips).
 John 3:14–15 (NIV 1984).
 John 8:28 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 15:2 (paraphrased).
 Luke 15:2 (NIV 1984).
 See Matthew 12:24.
 Luke 9:58; Matthew 8:20 (NIV 1984).
 John 19:26–27 (KJV).
 Frederick W. Faber, “Come to Jesus” (1854).
 Luke 18:13 (KJV).
 Luke 18:11 (NIV 1984).
 See Psalm 19:14.
Copyright © 2023, 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.