Those pesky nations – Luke 2:30-33

Posted: July 3, 2012 by J in Bible, Luke Commentary

At this point things take an unexpected turn, as Simeon introduces the idea of the nations. God’s salvation has been prepared ‘in the presence of all peoples’; the light which Zechariah welcomed has dawned not only for Israel but ‘for the nations.’ It is not only Israel but the whole world which has long been in darkness. The phrase phos eis apokálupsin ethnón is often translated ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’, which could be taken to mean no more than that the nations will be witnesses of God’s mercy to Israel. However the original setting for these words, in Isaiah 42, suggests a stronger translation. There, it is clear that nothing less than the salvation of the nations is in view:

I have given you as…
    a light for the nations,
    to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
    from the prison those who sit in darkness.               Isaiah 42:6-7


Simeon adds to the prophet’s phrase the word ‘revelation’. In the New Testament ‘revelation’ followed by the genitive case is always used in the material sense, where the genitive phrase identifies the thing revealed. In this case the genitive phrase is ‘of the nations’, suggesting that the nations are themselves revealed by this light. The translation should probably read not ‘revelation to the nations’, but ‘the revealing of the nations’. As the Messianic light goes forth from Israel it will illuminate or reveal all nations, bringing them out from their age-old darkness. It will be Israel’s honour to become the source of worldwide salvation.

This was probably not what Mary and Joseph were expecting to hear! They were ‘amazed’ at Simeon’s words. Given what they had already heard from the angel and the shepherds, what is there in Simeon’s prophecy to produce such a surprised response? Not his identification of Jesus with ‘salvation’, or ‘glory for Israel’ – they have heard those things already. No, the new element here, is Simeon’s reference to the nations. Most Jews were hoping Israel would be saved from the nations. It was no part of the ordinary Jew’s hope for the future that the nations should be saved. Jesus’ parents would have been unlikely to relish the prospects Simeon was opening up.

However, though salvation for the nations was not part of the typical Jew’s hope at that time in history – it was part of the hope projected by Israel’s prophets of old. That’s the point of hearing it from the Simeon, of all people. There can be no doubting his credentials as a son of Israel. The message which shocks Mary and Joseph comes from the lips of a prophet-like figure who has practically stepped forth from the pages of their Scriptures to speak with them ‘live’. It is set at the heart of the most Jewish scene in the entire Gospel. And so this tension between Simeon and Jesus’ parents is revealing and (once again) representative. We see that devout Jews of that time were out of step with the prophets of their own Scriptures. And the direction they had drifted was away from God’s creation-wide purpose of blessing, and towards nationalism and xenophobia.

Luke hints that if Israel was to listen to the true voice of the prophets afresh, they like Mary and Joseph would be surprised and perhaps disturbed by what they heard.

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