The Song of Simeon
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The Song of Simeon

Luke 2:21–32  (ID: 2064)

When the devout Simeon took the infant Jesus in his arms, he knew that he was seeing the Lord’s salvation for both Israel and the gentiles. Alistair Begg reminds us that Jesus lived to fulfil the law so that His righteousness would replace our failure to keep it. Because no one is able to live as they should, Jesus remains the only way to salvation for all people.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Luke, Volume 1

God with Us Luke 1:1–2:52 Series ID: 14201

Sermon Transcript: Print

And now, gracious God,

Make the Book live to me,
Show me yourself within the Word,
Show me myself and show me my Savior,
And make the Book live to me.[1]


“And what are you going to be doing today, Mr. Simeon?” someone might have asked him.

“Well,” said Simeon, “I’m going to spend today waiting.”

“Come now, Mr. Simeon, isn’t that what you were doing yesterday?”

“Yes,” said Simeon. “That’s actually what I do every day.”

“You just wait?”

“Well, it’s not all I do, but it’s part of what I do.”

“Oh, it must be great to be retired.”

“Oh, it’s wonderful to be retired!”

“Mr. Simeon, what is it exactly that you are waiting for?”

“Well, I’m waiting for the consolation of Israel.” Or, if you like, “I’m waiting for the salvation of Israel.”

“Mr. Simeon, do you think you will recognize this when it happens?”

“Oh, yes. When I see him, I will know that it is him.”

And Luke says, “And when Jesus’ parents brought the child in, he—Simeon—took him up in his arms, blessed God, and said, ‘May I have your permission to die in peace, Lord, for with my own eyes I have seen your salvation?’”

I don’t know how many places there are in the Bible, either, where people ask for permission to die. But that’s essentially what he’s saying: “Lord, will you now let me die in peace? Let me depart in peace.” It is a request. “And the reason that I am glad now to anticipate going on is because I have seen your salvation.” Incidentally, one should never pray the first part of that prayer unless the second part is applicable to us and we have understood and embraced it.

Now, the context in which this dramatic scene unfolds is one of obedience on the part of Mary and Joseph to the requirements of the Jewish law. They, as a good young Jewish couple, would ensure that they were doing everything according to the book, both in terms of bringing Christ to be circumcised on the eighth day and also in terms of the fulfillment of the purification rights which had been delineated all these years before in the book of Leviticus.

Now, it would be possible for us—and it certainly wouldn’t be worthless—to spend time analyzing the details of verses 21–24, and we’re not going to do that. Now, let me say enough about it, I hope, to further your own personal study. But I want simply to identify for you that the central issue, the key element, in verses 21–24 is the identification of Jesus with those he has come to save. It is the identification of Jesus with those he has come to save.

Now, that may not immediately mean very much to some of you or, indeed, to all of you. So let me encourage you to turn to four verses of Scripture with me. And I’m going to read them, and if you choose to follow along, you will be the better for it; if you choose not to, that’s okay; and if I lose you along the way, I apologize for moving too quickly.

Romans 8:3: “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.” And the reason for turning there is because of that phrase “God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man.”

Although Jesus is without sin or guilt, in identifying with those whom he came to save, he must perform all the obligations of the law.

Then, if you go to Galatians 4:4: “But when the time had fully come…” You remember last Sunday morning, we mentioned that phrase back in Luke 2, “the time came for the baby to be born,”[2] and we said that it was more than simply a reference to the duration of gestation. And here in Galatians 4, you have that articulated: “But when the time had fully come,” in the fullness of time, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.”

Hebrews 2:17: “For this reason, he”—that is, Jesus—“had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.” That verse is as good as any that I’ve quoted so far in tying in this point of the identification of Christ with those whom he came to save.

So, although Jesus is without sin or guilt… (You say, “Well, there’s a fourth one.” Hang on—it’s coming.) So, although Jesus is without sin or guilt, in identifying with those whom he came to save, he must perform all the obligations of the law.

And that takes me to Matthew 3:15 and is explaining the statement—the somewhat enigmatic statement—in Matthew 3:15, where when Jesus came from Galilee to Jordan to be baptized by John, you may recall, John says, “Wait a minute! Don’t we have this the wrong way around? I should be being baptized by you, and you’re coming, and I’m supposed to baptize you?”[3] And “Jesus replied, ‘Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.’”[4] And that is an express statement regarding the obligation of Christ to fulfill the requirements of the law—an obligation which came about as a result of his identification with those whom he came to save.

Now, the circumcision and the purification customs which are referred to in these four verses reference the state of sin into which everyone is born. And the purification pictures and the circumcision picture, etc., is directly related to the fact of sinfulness. “But,” says someone, “Jesus was without sin. Jesus was stainless. Jesus was the Holy One.” Correct. “Then why,” they say, “would he undergo these things? Surely it was unnecessary for him, by dint of his sinlessness, to go through the obligations of the law which were prescribed for those who had been born in sin?” Well, it was not unnecessary, because he did so not on his own account but as a sign that he voluntarily is placing himself under the law and taking upon himself this obligation, an obligation which fell to his people, so as to procure their redemption.

Now, as I say, there is a great deal in that, and there are many journeys you can take from there, and I invite you to go ahead and take them in due course.

Let me suggest to you that the emphasis of this section, the total section, is on salvation. Is on salvation. What is it that Simeon prophesies? It is about the nature of Christ bringing salvation. What is it that he prays? It is about his eyes having seen salvation. Why the reference to his name, Jesus? Because of the fact of the significance of the name in the line of Joshua, essentially the same name: this Jesus is the Great Deliverer. And indeed, in Matthew, in 1:21, you have the explanatory comment after the statement “And you [will] give him the name Jesus,” and then comes the explanation: “for he shall save his people from their sins.”[5]

So I want, essentially, to think through these verses by means of the prism of salvation. We take them up, as it were, and we could turn them at a number of angles; we’re going to turn them at this angle, and we’re going to look back into them through the section of the prism that is marked—the facet that has over it, if you like, “Salvation.”

Now, I want you to notice what would have been most striking to the Jewish mind—namely, that this salvation that this Christ has come to bring is not nationalistic as it relates to Israel per se but is universal, having been “prepared in the sight of all [the] people.” And it is, according to verse 32, “revelation to the Gentiles” as well as “glory to [the] people [of] Israel.”
And all of the nations are to be the recipient of this message. Why? Because all of the nations are filled with men and women of a variety of colors, convictions, religious predilections, and they need to hear the story of Christ.

Now, if you think about that for a moment, that is staggering. It is staggering. And indeed, it is so staggering that many of our friends and neighbors balk at the very thought of it. Because this is what they’ll say. When they discover that we have an involvement with people around the world in different places, whether it is in Guatemala, or whether it is in Bolivia, or in Germany, or in France, or in Japan, or in Southeast Asia, wherever it might be, and they say to us, “Well, what are the people doing over there? Are they building buildings? Are they putting in plumbing systems?”—which, of course, would be a valid use of time—“No, no,” we say, “they’re not doing that. In many cases they are translating the Bible.”

“Translating the Bible? I thought everyone had the Bible?”

“Oh, no. In fact, one of our missionary families just finished the New Testament in a very remote language, and it’s a wonderful achievement, and we rejoice in that.”

“Why would they ever want to do that?” say our friends.

“Because it is imperative that they are introduced to Jesus.”

“Well, why do they have to be introduced to Jesus? Don’t they have a religion of their own down there? Don’t they have some way of meeting God?” You see? “Who does Jesus think he is?” you find them saying.

That’s the question of the ages. Not “Who does Jesus think he is?” That’s the smug approach of Jesus Christ Superstar: “Jesus Christ Superstar, do you think you’re [who] they say you are?”[6] No, no. Who is Jesus? If Jesus was merely a philanthropist, if Jesus was merely a social activist, if Jesus was merely a kind of jazzed-up Galilean carpenter who did a bunch of good things while he was around, and the end of his life was in a Palestinian tomb, and that represented the cul-de-sac of it all, why would anybody take a minute in time to go anywhere in the world to talk about this Christ? There would be no reason! Indeed, there is no reason.

And that, you see, is where men and women’s minds are this morning. They say, “Well, I don’t understand why people have be so concerned about this Jesus. After all, who is this Jesus?”

We’ve a story to tell to the nations
That will turn their hearts to the right,
A story of peace and gladness,
A story of love and light.

For the darkness will turn to dawning,
And the dawning to noonday bright,
And God’s great kingdom will come on earth,
A kingdom of love and light.[7]

And how will that be accomplished? It will be accomplished as a result of men and women being prepared to give up their small ambitions and go to the outermost parts of the earth with this good news of salvation.

If it is an unpalatable notion amongst our neighbors, it is an equally unpalatable notion in the realm of academia today. For pluralism and syncretism is so embedded in the minds of people that the idea that there could ever be one way to God—namely, through Christ—is abhorrent. And the prevailing notion is that there is no one revelation of divine reality, that there is no one unique way to discover divine reality, and presumably, if we take all of the attempts of man and syncretize them in some fashion, then we will be able to get as good a grasp of it as we possibly can. And that all sounds so high-minded, and it sounds so politically correct, and it sounds so absorbable—until you think about it, and it’s absolutely facile.

And the one person to be afraid of in these days, says our culture, is the individual who is dogmatic. You don’t want to hang around with people like Peter. You don’t want to listen to the proclamations of Paul. You want to go somewhere where the person will say, “This is just my opinion, and I’m sorry to interrupt you, and I didn’t mean to impose upon you.”

What a waste of time! Can you imagine somebody going out tomorrow morning to sell shower doors, and that’s as much conviction as he has? “Good morning! Here I am, and I know you probably don’t like my shower doors, and I know you probably don’t need a shower door, and I know you probably got all the shower doors you could ever want, and I’m sorry to be here, and I’m really a pathetic piece of humanity, and…” “What? You sell shower doors, or what do you do? Why don’t you just bang a shower door over your head and chuck it?”

And in theological circumstances and in theological environments, the notion of the universal appeal of the gospel is increasingly being eroded, and from theological schools within the Western world you hear the bleating of people saying, “You know, maybe we shouldn’t be as strident about this as we have been in the past. Maybe there is no need for us to go to these places. Maybe the Muslim will meet God by being a good Muslim. Maybe the Buddhist will meet God by being a good Buddhist. Why should we be so concerned about that?” You hear people saying that. The fringes of evangelical scholarship is even writing learned articles about that. We are a far, far distance removed from Peter in Acts 4 as he stands and declares, “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is [no] other name [given] under heaven … among men, whereby we must be saved.”[8]

And that, you see, is the story that is unfolding here at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. If you doubt the pluralism and the syncretism, go and rustle up the C-SPAN recording of the presidential Prayer Breakfast. I won’t say any more about it now, ’cause it’ll be a rabbit trail, but I will say something about it this evening. If you doubt the endemic pluralism, ecumenism, and syncretism of our country, just watch that for five minutes.

Salvation, and the word and the notion, is not theoretical, and it’s not religious jargon. We talk about being “saved” all the time. People talk about saving par in playing golf. They managed to drop the putt, so they took four, so they saved par; another one and it would have been a bogie. In ecological terms, they talk about saving the rainforests. In economic terms, they talk about saving the economy of Brazil. So we are not unfamiliar with the concept.

But the question is this: What is this salvation for which Simeon was waiting? “My eyes,” he says, “have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people.” What was the expectation of Israel at the time of the birth of Christ?

Now, we can answer that. It’s not conjecture. We know what it was. The people who were alert, who were tuned in, who were reading their Bibles, who were thinking, had one word in mind, and the word was deliverance, or redemption. And their expectation—and if you look back to Zechariah’s song and to 1:71—they were looking forward to “salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” So they’re sitting around, and they’re saying, “You know what? The day is going to come when we will be liberated once again from the hand of the enemy, and those who hate us will be vanquished.”

Now, Atkinson, in a purple passage talking about redemption in the Old Testament, makes the point. He says the Israelites, in reviewing their history, acknowledged that they were delivered from bondage without a war; that they were delivered from the Red Sea without a boat; that they were delivered from hunger and thirst when there was neither food nor water in the wilderness; they were delivered from their enemies without any armed forces.

I mean, if we have no other picture of that, we have the story of Gideon, don’t we? The gradual reduction of the numbers to some paltry force with a few lamps and one or two swords. Why? So that the small group regarding themselves as high-powered marines may be able to say, “And we did it”? No! So that the small group, when they saw the extent of the victory, in which their sword played zero part, would acknowledge what the whole history of redemption makes clear—namely, that it is God who saves, whether by many or by few.[9] And therefore, the alert Jewish mind—the Simeons, the Annas, the Zechariahs of the time—were expecting the deliverance of Israel.

Look, for example, at the thirty-eighth verse here in chapter 2, of those to whom Anna spoke. She “spoke about the child,” notice, “to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” And again, if you cross-reference this with Zechariah’s song and go back to the seventy-fourth verse, what was this they were looking for? They were looking to be rescued “from the hand of our enemies” and to be enabled “to serve [God] without fear.” In other words, the assumption would be that God would come and liberate Jerusalem and its people from the domination of these horrible Romans. So, when they listened to Zechariah’s prophecy, they would have articulated it or rearticulated it, reframed it, in light of all that they’d known of redemption history from that point. And God had a pattern of coming and intervening on behalf of his people and moving them out from underneath the domination of these foreign powers.

But if they listened carefully to Zechariah’s song, then they would have realized that the Holy Spirit was moving their minds in a different direction. And in 1:76, speaking of the role of John the Baptist: he “will be called [the] prophet of the Most High”; he “will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him.” Then verse 77: “to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.”

Well, that must have been a bit of a hammer blow, don’t you think? “What is this about?” They must have nudged one another and said, “Did you… Did you get that? Did you get that piece about the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of our sins? I didn’t think we needed our sins forgiven. If there’s anyone around here that needs their sins forgiven, it’s these lousy Romans that are making our lives so miserable. We’re not in need of the forgiveness of our sins.”

John the Baptist steps out of the wilderness, and how shocked they must have been at the way in which he addressed them as they came to the baptism service. Look at what he says to them in 3:7: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath, you bunch of snakes, coming out here to get baptized? You say you’ve turned around? Produce fruit in keeping with your turnaround. And don’t start saying to yourselves again, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’”[10]

Do you get the picture? See, they’re thinking nationalistically. They’re thinking in terms of a national deliverance. They’re thinking of the fact that God will come, show himself strong, and that they will be what they desire to be. And God comes, and he says, “I am going to bring a deliverance for you, but not along the lines that you’re anticipating.”

It wasn’t very palatable, and it isn’t very palatable today to the Orthodox Jews at the Wailing Wall to be told that “listen, God can raise children of Abraham out of stones if he pleases.”[11] The Jews said, “No, that’s not possible. You’ve got to have the right lineage, you’ve got to have the correct parents, you’ve got to come down through the right channels, or you’re not a real Jew.” That’s the debate at the Wailing Wall: “Who are these people that came from America? Who are these conservative folks? Who are these weird folks? You get away from here! You go back to America. We’re the real people! We’re the ones that know!” They have a zeal for God, but it is devoid of knowledge.[12] What knowledge? “The knowledge of salvation.” How? “Through the forgiveness of their sins.”

Now, that is the message here: that “all mankind,” according to 3:6, “will see God’s salvation.” Paul follows in along the same line when he writes the book of Romans. It’s hardly surprising; he and Luke hung around together all the time. Luke was accompanying him on many of his journeys. So when you read the book of Romans, you find that Paul is understanding the way in which God is bringing deliverance to the gentiles and will be the glory of his people Israel.

And I don’t want to sidetrack on this, but I want to turn your attention to just two portions there in Romans chapter 10 and Romans 11. Look at what he says in Romans 10:1: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.” How are they going to be saved? How will Israelites be saved? The same way that gentiles will be saved. Not a Jewish salvation and a gentile salvation. Only one way of salvation.

What is the way of salvation? What is the deliverance that God performs? It is a deliverance from sin, forgiveness that he grants. And there is the verse that I was quoting to you: “For I can testify,” verse 2, “about them, that they[’re] zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” They’re zealous, but they don’t have knowledge. What is the knowledge that they lack? The knowledge of salvation. How does the knowledge of salvation come? Through the forgiveness of sins. How does forgiveness of sins come? In the person of Christ. If they then reject the person of Christ, there is no possibility for the forgiveness of sins; therefore, they are left only with the zealous externalism, which cannot cure the heart of man.

And that’s where our Jewish friends and neighbors are. And how our hearts yearn for them! How we long for them, that they would understand that here in this Galilean carpenter is the one of whom their prophets spoke, is the fulfillment of the Suffering Servant, is the victorious King, is the reigning Messiah, is the Lord in all his glory. But “since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.”[13]

The deliverance the people desired was not the deliverance the people required.

Where is God’s righteousness revealed? In the person of Christ. Why are those people walking around with all these things on their heads, and all these tassels hanging from their ears, and all the things strapped to their wrists? Because they are devoid of knowledge and full of zeal. And Paul says, “Since the gospel I’ve been called to proclaim is a universal gospel and has liberated me from all of that bondage, my heart’s desire for Israel is that they might be saved.” And when he goes on into chapter 11—this is starting to be a sermon on its own—but when he goes into chapter 11, you find him saying in verse 13, “I[’m] talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I make much of my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but [actually] life from the dead?”

Do you pray for your Jewish friends? Do you have a Jewish lawyer? Do you visit a Jewish doctor? Don’t talk to them about Jews for Jesus. I’m not convinced about that Jews for Jesus business. I spent quite a considerable time this week asking myself the question—and I couldn’t come up with a sensible answer to it, but I sat for a while just chewing the cud and asking myself this question: Would the apostle Paul have been a member of Jews for Jesus? In other words, would he have been prepared to forsake the resurrection-day celebration and worship, and worship on a Saturday evening? Would he continue to encourage the participants to wear the same prayer shawls, to engage in the same Judaistic routine? Would he have done that? Would he have done that in light of the battle that he fought with Peter? Would he have done that in light of the counsel of Jerusalem in Acts 15? And you know what? I don’t think he would. And therefore, I am not engaging in evangelism to tell a Jewish person to become a Jew for Jesus. I am engaging in evangelism to tell a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, an agnostic, a New Ager, a Scientologist the story of salvation.

A light for all the peoples; deliverance for the gentiles; glory for the people of Israel—which creates what? It creates a totally new community. And the community is convened not around the lineage of the past, albeit Judaistic or otherwise, but is convened around the fact of an empty tomb, a risen Christ, and a sovereign Lord. And there is no Jew or gentile, barbarian, Scythian, bond or free,[14] ex-homosexual, ex-drug addict, ex-porno merchant. We don’t come around and describe ourselves in those terms. That’s what we used to be. But we’ve now been made brand-new in Jesus. That’s salvation. And that was Paul’s passionate longing. He doesn’t start Jews for Jesus.

Now, please, for those of you who give money for Jews for Jesus, don’t go away and start canceling your subscriptions and everything. These are just the meanderings of a weird Scotsman on the subject. And I haven’t given a lot of thought to it. But I have decided that Paul would not have been a paid-up member of the group, for the reasons that I have just delineated. Because he was constantly urging those who were coming out of his background to see that all those things he regarded as dung for the sake of Jesus Christ.[15] And if he regarded them as dung for the sake of Jesus Christ, why in the world would he then institute his worship services with a pile of dung? Now, that’s about as crude as Paul put it, and that’s about as crude as I can reiterate it. So when we talk salvation for the gentile and for the Jew, we are talking about one way for each and a radical transformation.

Now, let me draw this to a close by giving you a statement, and then I’ll work it out, and then we’ll finish. Here’s the issue: the deliverance the people desired was not the deliverance the people required. The deliverance they desired was not what they required.

Now, you don’t have to stay in the opening chapters of Luke for this; you can go all the way through the book. For example, if you go to Luke chapter 19—if you just track with me for a moment, if you would—here we’ve got the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. And what are the people doing? They are singing the songs of deliverance, throwing their cloaks on the ground, the kids are coming with the palm branches, they are taking up the Old Testament pictures, and they are saying to one another, Luke 19:38, “‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ‘Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’”

Isn’t it interesting that after such a tumultuous welcome, the very next thing Luke tells us about Jesus and what he’s doing is what? He’s crying. Crying! You would’ve expected that he’d got the guys together and goes, “Hey, that’s the way I like to go to Jerusalem. I’m pleased to see these people have got it! They know who I am. They know why I’ve come. They’re singing the songs. They’re waving the branches. The Old Testament prophecies are being fulfilled.” There’s none of that! Jesus approaches Jerusalem, sees the city, weeps over it, and says, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace.”[16] Because he sees into their hearts, and he knows that the same people who are singing “Hosanna” in 19:38[17] are shouting “Crucify him” in 23:[21]. Because when Pilate comes to the group and says, “Do you want Barabbas, or do you want Christ?”, “with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he”—namely, Jesus—“be crucified, and their shouts prevailed.”[18]

Why? Because they must have said to one another, “You know, I had a notion—I didn’t want to say to anybody—but I had a notion when he came on that donkey that we had got the thing wrong. Because you would have expected that if he really was the king, he would have come on a bit of a better horse, and he wouldn’t have come just with that ragtag and bobtail group that he’s been hanging around with all the time. You would have thought that he would have had a real entourage and would have made his presence felt. And I had a sneaking suspicion that it was going to go badly wrong. But I didn’t think it would go this badly wrong. I didn’t think he would go in that garden of Gethsemane and be betrayed and picked up and put in the jail, and I didn’t think they would ram a crown on his head. But we know now that this can’t possibly… There’s no possibility of deliverance here! Let’s fold that idea. ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ Look where he is. Look what they are doing to him! He’s supposed to be the victorious Christ. There is no victory about this. Let’s move on.”

And even after the resurrection, they’re still there. The last chapter of Luke’s Gospel, what do you find? The two guys on the road to Emmaus—one called Cleopas, is it, and his buddy? And they’re miserable! And they meet a stranger who says to them, you know, “What’s on?” And they reply—and I love the irony of this—Luke 24:18, “Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do [you] not know the things that have happened there in these days?” This is to Jesus, right? They don’t know it’s Jesus. “Are you just visiting Jerusalem, just around for a few days? I’m surprised that you haven’t heard what was going on.”

Now, what does Jesus do? He doesn’t stand up and go, “Excuse me! Let me just let you know who you’re talking to here for a moment.” No, no. He plays along with him. He goes, “What things are you talking about?” “Well,” they said, “we’re actually talking about Jesus of Nazareth.”

“Jesus of Nazareth?” he must have said. “Tell me about Jesus of Nazareth.”

“Well, he was a prophet. He was powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. We remember the miracles he did. We remember the things he said. It was fantastic. But the chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him.”[19] Notice verse 21: “But we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” Redeem them how? Liberation. Deliverance. “Goodbye, naughty Romans! Here we are!”

You see, they were concerned for God to provide them with what they wanted. They wanted to bow before a God whose activities were directly answering their own felt needs. And if you can make this shift—as I move to a close—in your mind for a moment, I think there is a logic in my progression of thought here. When we conceive of God in such a mistaken fashion and when we scale God down to our own size, then the notion of salvation, the notion of deliverance, the notion of redemption is dwarfed; it is diminished. And the central issue is then less the redeeming activity of God on the part of man, and it becomes what man wants from God.

The squalor from which Jesus came to remove us is the squalor of the human heart.

Let me say that to you again. When we get a mistaken notion of who God is—you just take your eyes off the Bible and you’ll be there—when you get a mistaken notion of who God is, then God will actually become the projection of our best thoughts. As in Acts 17, for example: they had all these shrines to all these different gods, and one to the unknown god.[20] So God is what we conceive him to be, and then “God,” whoever this conception is, will then come and presumably give us what we want. So what we are worshipping, then, is not God but is actually an idol.

If you’ve ever gone to the Orient, you will know that they have all kinds of idols. And in China they always take virtues and personify them in deities. And if you’ve traveled there at all, you will know that there are three of them that always show up together—that is, Fu, Lu, and Shu. And you can find them in 24-carat gold, put on little teak plaques, and they’ll sell them to you all over the place. They’ll sell them to you on Singapore Airlines if you’re crazy enough to pay $150 for them.

And why would you ever buy them? Well, because of what they represent. Fu represents peace, Lu represents success, and Shu represents longevity. Peace, success, and longevity. Wouldn’t you like that? Let’s be honest now. “Yes, I’d like peace, I’d like success, and I’d like longevity.” “Well, then, let me tell you, if you come to Christ, I’m going to offer you peace, success, and longevity. In fact, I can put them in any order you want. Would you like success first? Followed by a little peace? And then longevity?”

What if I started to do that on Sundays? Would the crowd expand or diminish? Probably expand. “Go down there. There’s a guy called Begg. He’s offering peace, success, and longevity. He says that Jesus came to bring it. It’s everything we desire. Let’s go down there and get some.” “What do you have to do?” “Not a lot.” It’s called the prosperity gospel. You can tune in on Christian TV and watch it night after horrible night. It is idolatry of the worst form. But you see, the salvation we desire is not the same as what we require.

Someone else says, “Well, I’m not really interested in prosperity. I’m at the other end of the scale completely. I like the idea of liberating people from their bondage to disease, and from their difficulties, and from their homelessnesses. And I’m the Habitat for Humanity man, and I think the answer to it all is in building houses for people.”

It is wonderful to help people, and it is nice to build houses for people, and it is a wonderful thing to be able to remove individuals from squalor. But that is not the gospel. For the squalor and the deprivation from which Jesus came to remove us is the squalor of the human heart. And it is only when God turns the lights on that we’ll understand it.

When the Prodigal leaves home—in Luke 15, around the middle of the chapter, maybe around verse 12—he leaves with a request, and he returns with a request. You remember, he comes to his father, and he says, “Give me! Give me what I deserve. Give me what I want. And I will go, and I will do what I choose with this.” The request with which he returns is not “Give me” but “Make me.” Because he discovered that the salvation he desired was not to be found down there in fat city. He was on a dead-end street with success. His friendships had hit the fan. His prosperity had molded on him. He was in a pigsty.

What sort of gospel would it be to go to a guy in a pigsty and say, “Hey, cheer up, Charlie! You could be in a worse spot than this, you know.” What good is a gospel that leaves people in pigsties? And that’s the gospel of the twentieth century. It holds out the appeal of success and peace and longevity and delivers a pigsty—and, once in the pigsty, has no possible means of liberation.

Can I ask you this morning: Are you able to say with Simeon, “Permission to die, Lord? I’ve seen your salvation. I’ve seen that what I desire and what I require are not one and the same. I actually have been desiring a number of things. I’ve been desiring…” Somebody spoke with me this week; they said, “You know, I think that I desire to help people, and I desire to be more spiritual.” And I said, “Those are wonderful desires. Why do you feel you should do that?” Answer: “Because I think if I help others and if I get more spiritual, I will feel much better about myself.” So in other words, it’s driven not by philanthropy; it’s driven by total selfishness. It starts with me, and it ends with me. That’s not the gospel.

So, can I ask you again: Have you ever said, “Lord, I ask for permission to die—I can die any time now—because I have seen your salvation. I understand what Jesus came to do. I understand that the problem I have is not external to me; it’s internal to me. And I ask you to grant to me a knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of my sins.” And the Bible says that whoever calls out to God in that way, God will never, ever turn him away.

Father, we thank you for your Word, and we thank you for the instruction that comes by means of these statements from Simeon. We pray that as we think about the nature of salvation and the universal nature of it, that you will enable us not to keep this good news to ourselves but, having taken, as it were, Christ in our arms and embraced him, that we would then want to share him with others. And for those of us who stand aloof from the salvation he came to bring, we pray, Lord, that you will help us to sort out the difference between desire and what we require.

And now may your grace and your mercy and peace be with us this day and in the days of this week. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

[1] R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943). Lyrics lightly altered.

[2] Luke 2:6 (NIV 1984).

[3] Matthew 3:14 (paraphrased).

[4] Matthew 3:15 (NIV 1984).

[5] Matthew 1:21 (KJV).

[6] Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, “Superstar” (1970).

[7] H. Ernest Nichol, “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations” (1896). Lyrics lightly altered.

[8] Acts 4:12 (KJV).

[9] See 1 Samuel 14:6.

[10] Luke 3:7–8 (paraphrased).

[11] Luke 3:8 (paraphrased).

[12] See Romans 10:2.

[13] Romans 10:3 (NIV 1984).

[14] See Colossians 3:11.

[15] See Philippians 3:8.

[16] Luke 19:42 (NIV 1984).

[17] See also John 12:13.

[18] Luke 23:23 (NIV 1984).

[19] Luke 24:19–20 (paraphrased).

[20] See Acts 17:23.

Copyright © 2024, 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.