We all need encouragement from time to time. So did Mary and Joseph, whom God strengthened in an extraordinary way.
“Who were those people? What just happened?” Mary and Joseph may have asked themselves these questions following their brief encounter with Simeon and Anna at the Temple in Jerusalem. They had gone there to perform their obligations before God following the birth of their son, Jesus; and God used the occasion to have two elderly saints encourage them in their walk with Him and to remind them that Jesus was no ordinary child.
Though Mary and Joseph both knew the baby was conceived when the Holy Spirit came upon Mary and that the child would be called the “Son of God” (Lk. 1:35), they probably could not fully comprehend the significance of what was happening and needed comfort and reassurance.
Forced to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem in the final days of Mary’s pregnancy because of a government census, they could not even stay in a kataluma (Greek for “guest room”; 22:11) because there was no room. So they stayed in a stable, where Mary gave birth.
First God sent the shepherds to them. They appeared announcing that angels had sent them to find “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (2:11).
Then He brought Simeon and Anna. Nearly seven weeks had passed, and Mary and Joseph had settled in a house in Bethlehem (Mt. 2:11); circumcised their son on the eighth day, in accordance with the Mosaic Law (Lev. 12:3); and named Him Jesus, as God had instructed them through the angel Gabriel.
They waited the additional 33 days (v. 4) before going to the Temple to fulfill the Law’s requirements to redeem their firstborn and offer a sacrifice of two turtledoves for Mary’s cleansing (v. 8). Again, God surprised them with comfort and encouragement.
Directed by God’s Spirit, the aged Simeon walked up to them and gently took the 6-week-old baby from their arms. Without explanation, he began blessing God for the infant in a rather enigmatic way: “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel” (Lk. 2:29–32).
Simeon knew exactly who the baby was. He was the Messiah of Israel. He affirmed what the angel Gabriel had already told Mary:
And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end (1:31–33).
And an angel had told Joseph,
Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins (Mt. 1:20–21).
God encouraged this young couple by confirming both His message and the child’s identity by sending Simeon and Anna—choice servants He had prepared to meet them at the Temple.
Simeon is described as a just and devout resident of Jerusalem.1 He wasn’t a priest or anyone special. But he was a servant of God, living in anticipation of God’s redemption of Israel. He lived in a daily relationship with God’s Holy Spirit, and his pursuit of God had secured a message from the Spirit that he would see God’s Messiah before he died. It seems Simeon had shared this promise with others in the godly remnant of believers, like Anna, who walked up “in that instant” (Lk. 2:38) and joined the celebration.
How did Simeon know when, where, and for whom to look? Perhaps he knew that, 18 months earlier, the priest Zacharias was in the Temple when he saw an angel who told him he and his elderly wife, Elizabeth, would have a child they would name John who would “go before Him [the Messiah] in the spirit and power of Elijah . . . to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (1:17).
Perhaps Simeon was even at the Temple six months earlier when Zacharias and Elizabeth brought John (later called John the Baptist) to complete the same requirements Mary and Joseph were completing. Might Simeon have come every day looking for the Promised One? Clearly, he was directed by the Holy Spirit (2:27), but these events may have heightened his sensitivity.
His appearance seems intended to encourage these humble parents in their mission to raise this special child.
Simeon then proceeded to warn Mary about her child’s destiny: “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (vv. 34–35).
The road here on Earth would not be easy for Jesus or Mary. Jesus would divide the nation. Many would fall as a result of rejecting Him. His ministry would reveal the true nature of people’s hearts, and Mary would suffer as she watched her son suffer. Simeon’s prophecy gave Mary a fresh understanding that fulfilling God’s plan in this world often brings suffering.
Simeon’s message was like a double-edged sword for Mary and Joseph. On the one hand, they must have been encouraged by his recognition of Jesus as the Lord’s Messiah. On the other hand, Mary knew she would experience soul-rending heartache through her son’s suffering. (It appears Joseph died before Jesus was crucified.)
But Anna’s appearance drew them all back to encouragement. “And coming in that instant” (v. 38), as Mary was facing the distress of Simeon’s prophecy, Anna broke into thanksgiving. This dear Jewish saint, who was around 84 years old and was widowed “seven years from her virginity” (vv. 36–37), had been in the Temple, fasting and praying “night and day” (v. 37). She encouraged and rejoiced with Joseph and Mary in God’s blessings.
Luke described Anna as one focused on the positives, seeking to glorify God through her faithful ministry. She had chosen to invest her life in fastings and prayers; and after she saw the infant Jesus, she “spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (v. 38).
Anna was a prophetess, prepared through many years of focusing on the Kingdom of God, rather than on her personal losses, which probably made her uniquely suited to encourage God’s chosen couple on their difficult path. So God used two senior saints to affirm and encourage younger folks seeking to obey Him in the midst of trying circumstances. Isn’t that the way it should be today, as well?
It likely would be months before the magi arrived—whose presence also probably encouraged the couple. Meanwhile, Joseph and Mary lived routine lives, resting in the joy of God’s public affirmation of their son and His work.
- One might speculate how Luke learned about this incident. He interviewed “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (Lk. 1:2). But surely Simeon, Anna, and Joseph were with the Lord by then, about 60 years later. Mary may still have been alive (possibly in her 70s). It’s hardly likely this incident was recorded in any official capacity. Clearly, the encounter with Simeon and Anna had made a huge impact on Mary. It seems likely she would have shared the story many times with her other children, especially after they became believers.