Perhaps acknowledging the parents’ misgivings, Simeon further develops this controversial aspect of Jesus’ future role. He tells Mary: ‘Indeed, this child is destined to cause the fall and rise of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed’ (v.34). Again we hear of the overturning of the social order, so that the high-placed fall and the despised receive honour. This is the theme of reversal which Mary herself had welcomed as the manifestation of the Lord’s judgement (Luke 1:51-54). However, this upheaval will not be universally welcomed, and so Jesus will become ‘a sign who will be opposed.’ This is our first real hint of the intense conflict and violence in store in Luke’s narrative.
The effect of this conflict will be revelatory – it is part of the judgement Jesus will bring. People’s reaction to this child will expose their true nature: ‘that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.’ Simeon is describing a division in Israel: some will rise, others fall. Some will welcome the Messiah and receive blessing; others will reject him and exclude themselves from God’s salvation. In the judgement of God which this child is bringing, people will in a sense pronounce the verdict on themselves. This idea of self-judgement will become a powerful theme later in the Gospel and into Acts (cf. Luke 6:38; Acts 13:46).
Mary and Joseph will not be immune from the conflict nor the judgement: ‘a sword will pierce your own soul also’. While this expression is often taken to refer to Mary’s pain at Jesus’ crucifixion, Luke never records Mary’s presence at the cross – that is found only in John. Context suggests we hear it as a continuation of the theme of judgement. Simeon’s prophecy is very like the saying in Hebrew 4:12:
The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
In Hebrews the sword that pierces and reveals the heart is a metaphor for the testing, exposing power of the gospel of Jesus. It gets right to the core of the person, to uncover ‘what they are made of’. In this sense the gospel brings the judgement or verdict of God. Probably Simeon employs the metaphor in a similar way here, with regard to Mary. The purpose of God for his Messiah will confront and test Jesus’ family also, as Luke will show in the next episode (2:45-48) and again later in his Gospel (cf. Luke 8:19-21).