Read: Luke 2:34-35
And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:34,35 RSV)
Much about Jesus’ birth is sheer joy, vaulting, unimaginable jubilation that God in marvelous mercy should visit our planet, humbling Himself to be born as a human baby, coming to set right what we have made so wrong. What a gospel! Good tidings of great joy indeed.
And when old Simeon saw the baby and held Jesus in his arms, that same gladness overflowed. Listen to Simeon’s cry of grateful happiness: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (2:31-32).
This was the crowning moment of Simeon’s long life. It had been revealed to him long before by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. The years had slipped by and no fulfillment had seemed to be on the horizon. But now in God’s temple, holding the child in his arms, he knew that the moment had come. Simeon’s life was complete. He celebrated in thankful song. That’s one side, one beautiful side of the Christmas message.
But then when Simeon had pronounced a blessing upon Mary, Joseph and the child, he had these words for Mary, and we sense in them a different mood: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.” This, says Simeon, is a child of destiny. He will precipitate a crisis in Israel. He will be bitterly opposed in a way that will break Mary’s heart. And His appearing will bring to light the secrets of many hearts. Let’s think today, friends, of how that strange and poignant prophecy has been fulfilled.
Bringing a Crisis
First, Jesus will precipitate a crisis. “This child is set [is appointed, is destined] for the fall and rising of many in Israel.”
What does it mean that the child “is set” and that people, because of Him, will fall and rise? Listen to these words from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 28, verse 16: “Therefore thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, I am laying in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: `He who believes will not be in haste.’” The same thoughts are expressed in Psalm 118:22. “The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner. This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” The New Testament writers regard these as key prophetic passages about the life and ministry of Jesus. In His coming into the world, in His life and ministry, His death and resurrection, God has laid a foundation in Israel, a precious cornerstone. This will be the key to His unfolding purpose. This will be the basis on which a new humanity will be built. And this cornerstone laying, as it were, will take place right in the center of Israel’s life.
The crisis arises because everyone will need to make some kind of response to what God has done. There stands the stone He has appointed. It’s in everyone’s path. The final drama of Jesus’ life is played out in Jerusalem, Israel’s Holy City. The whole nation must deal with Him. Everyone must decide about Him. He precipitates a crisis.
Or again, to change the image slightly, God’s precious cornerstone is presented to the builders. Will they make use of it? Will they build upon it? Or will they reject it, set it aside, have nothing to do with it? That’s the decision each must make.
I was reading today of a crisis in an African country. Election time is coming. The man who has ruled the country from the time of its independence is seeking re-election. But now he faces a strong challenger with a vast following. Crowds are shouting in the streets that it’s time for a change.
What will the citizens do about this new challenge? If they openly identify themselves with the challenger and he is then defeated, they may risk reprisal from the powers that be. But if they refuse to align themselves with the forces that make for change, they may miss the wave of the future. They have to decide.
In the case of God’s cornerstone, much more than a political future is at stake. In the presence of Jesus, in response to His person and claim, people will fall or rise. They will accept Him or reject Him. They will build upon Him or be broken upon Him. They will live or they will die. They will be saved or lost.
That’s why the question, “Who is Jesus?” is such a crucial one. That’s why Pilate’s word, “What shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” is the most significant question anyone ever faces. Jesus confronts us. He is there. In His presence, depending on our response to Him, we stand or fall.
The Controversial One
The child is appointed also, says Simeon, for a sign that is spoken against. In the deepest sense of the word, He will be a controversial Christ. He will be opposed, resisted, rejected by some.
This too is a part of God’s purpose. Inescapably so. Was it not foretold that the builders would reject God’s cornerstone? Was it not prophesied of the Suffering Servant of the Lord, “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isa. 53:3).
This was the pathos of God’s entry into human history. As John puts it in His gospel, “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received Him not” (John 1:10,11). Herod the king sought to destroy Him in the months following His birth. The people in the town where He grew up (Nazareth) became so enraged with Him that they tried once to push Him over a cliff. The authorities in Israel were suspicious of Him, spoke against Him, tried to entrap Him, plotted His downfall. Finally, the crowds in the streets, the religious authorities, and the might of imperial Rome collaborated to destroy Him. He was a sign to be spoken against.
Now Simeon made the prophecy personal for Mary. “And a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” The saving work of God in history is not a painless transaction, worked out in heavenly realms. It involves suffering in this world. God becomes acutely vulnerable when He shares our life, takes on our flesh and blood. He can be stung now by insults, scarred by the lash. He can be mocked, spit upon, cruelly beaten. He can suffer horrible prolonged pain. He can bleed. He can die.
And because He enters the fabric of human life, since He’s born into a family, since He has a mother, His loved ones can be hurt as well, and they are. It’s not only a Father’s heart in heaven that breaks over the suffering of His Son, but also a human mother’s heart here on earth through which the sword passes. He may have come from the Glory, but He’s still the child of Mary’s womb, her firstborn, the joy of her life. To see Him hated, to hear the crowds cry for His blood, to know that the authorities of His own nation wanted Him dead, and then to see Him subjected to the most horrible torture ever devised, what agony that was for Mary!
Sometimes it’s harder to see our loved ones suffer than to bear things ourselves. I’ve known ministers who were cruelly criticized by people in their congregations. It was hard for the pastor to bear, but often much harder for the loyal wife who stood at his side. And many a mother dies many times in the death of a child she loves. It cannot be otherwise. To love is to become acutely vulnerable, isn’t it? “A sword shall pass through your own soul also.”
Revealing the Heart
Now for the final result of the crisis, when its full meaning unfolds. This child is set, this cornerstone is placed, this moment of truth arrives, “that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.” That happened throughout Jesus’ ministry, but especially during the last days of His life. Jesus rejected, Jesus on trial, Jesus crucified and risen, is the great searcher of hearts. He lays bare the inner attitudes of all who meet Him.
For example, how do people really feel about God? There are many in Israel who profess to be godly, who pride themselves on their religious devotion, who seem sincere in their efforts to please God. Saul of Tarsus was one of those. But in the advent of Jesus, all that is put to the test. Here He is, no longer a name or a theory or a hallowed tradition. God is personally present with His people. The way they react to Jesus reveals how they truly feel toward God. As He said, “He that has seen me has seen the Father.” Some of them hate and envy Him, reject His rule, want nothing to do with Him and demand that He be condemned and slain. Others believe in Him in spite of all and worship Him as their crucified and risen Lord. But Jesus, there in the midst, reveals what is in people’s hearts toward God.
How do those in the crisis really feel about others? They say of Jesus, “Behold the man!” He is God’s idea of a human being as well as God’s incarnate Son. Remember how Jesus said, “Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these, my brethren, you have done it to me”? (Matt. 24:40, KJV). It works the other way too, doesn’t it? The way we deal with our brother Jesus shows what’s really in our hearts toward people.
In the presence of Jesus, what is most profoundly true of us stands revealed. We’ve heard a good deal in the news recently about polygraph tests, “lie detector tests,” as they’re called. Just how reliable are these measures? A controversy has been raging about that. Some argue that when skillfully used, they can point out falsehood or establish veracity. Others counter with the idea that some lying is so habitual that the liars aren’t even aware they’re doing it. Such deceivers come through these tests with flying colors. So the jury is still out, as it were, on polygraph tests.
The coming of Jesus into the world does what such tests can never do. He reveals what we really are on the inside. What predominates with any of us—faith or unbelief? What’s most characteristic of you and me—light or darkness? In character, in motivation, in heart, are we children of God or have we kinship with the Evil One?
Jesus is the touchstone. How we respond to Him and the gospel which centers in Him provides the answer. The word revealed here (many hearts being revealed) has a judicial nuance about it. In Jesus’ coming, the true nature of people, their guilt or innocence, their falsehood or truth, will be established. Will we finally rise or fall? Will we speak against this strange sign or for it? Will God claim us for His own or not? Everything will be decided on the answer we have given our whole life long to this question: How will we respond to this Child of destiny? What will we do with Jesus, who is called Christ?
Prayer: Father, make us aware today that every hearing of the gospel, every encounter with Jesus, calls us to decision. May every person sharing this message respond in faith to the coming of Jesus, and may it be revealed that they are truly the children of God. In the name of Jesus. Amen.
About the Author
Dr. William C. Brownson was the President Emeritus of Words of Hope. Dr. Brownson served Reformed churches in Lodi, New Jersey, and Chicago, Illinois. In 1964 he was appointed Professor of Preaching at Western Theological Seminary, a position he occupied for ten years before serving at Words of Hope. In addition to a widespread speaking ministry in churches, on university campuses and at conferences, Dr. Brownson wrote extensively for the Church Herald, other Christian periodicals, and authored many books. Dr. Brownson died April 1, 2022.