Dedication of the firstborn 

Scripture passage and lesson focus: Exodus 13:13b-15; Luke 2:22-32

There can be no doubt that Jesus was a Torah-observant Jew. The descriptions of Jesus in the canonical Gospels make this abundantly clear. Matthew tells us that Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets … not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17, 18). Mark says that Jesus taught in the synagogue at Nazareth and he frequently “went up on the mountain to pray” (Mark 6:46). John reports that several times Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover and other Jewish festivals.

Exodus 13:13b-15; Luke 2:22-24 — Jesus presented in the temple 
Luke shows that Jesus was raised in a Torah-observant family. Jesus was presented to God in the temple by Mary and Joseph in accordance with the Law of Moses. Luke merges two traditional Jewish ceremonies, a purification rite and the dedication of the firstborn male child. The ritual purification of a mother after giving birth is described in Leviticus 12:1-8. This “purification according to the law of Moses” would have involved only Mary. While this underscores that Mary and Joseph were faithful Jews, Luke’s focus is on the infant Jesus.

Luke links the purification rite with the Jewish practice of consecrating the firstborn male child to God by offering a sacrifice in the temple. According to Exodus 13:2, all firstborns, human or animal, belong to God, the source of life.

In accordance with Exodus 13:13b-15, Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to redeem their son by offering a sacrifice. According to Luke, the requisite offering was a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons if the woman could not afford to provide a sheep. Luke’s account underlines the fact that Jesus was presented in the temple as sacred to the Lord (mentioned four times). It is also clear that his faithful parents were poor.

Luke 2:25-26 — Simeon filled with the Holy Spirit 
Not by chance but according to God’s providence and guided by the Spirit, a devout and righteous resident of Jerusalem named Simeon was in the temple at the same time that Mary and Joseph brought in Jesus. Simeon was eagerly awaiting the consolation of Israel, Luke says, using language reminiscent of Isaiah’s description of God’s deliverance of Israel from captivity (cf. Isaiah 52:9-10). Simeon had been told by the Holy Spirit that before he died he would see the Messiah.

Luke 2:27-32 — Jesus brings salvation to all 
Simeon picked up the infant Jesus in his arms and offered praise to God in the form of a prophetic oracle. God’s promise that Simeon would see the Messiah in his lifetime was fulfilled! God had kept God’s promise to Simeon and, by implication, also God’s promise to Israel. Simeon recognized Jesus as God’s agent of salvation.

God’s saving intervention publicly revealed in the temple was not only for Israel but also for the Gentiles. Here Luke is interjecting a universal dimension into the idea of the salvation offered by God. Simeon openly identifies Jesus as God’s salvation, the one who will bring glory not only to God’s chosen people Israel but, at the same time, Jesus is a light of revelation for Gentiles. As Luke reiterates in 3:6, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Simeon’s praise to God is well-known by the Latin translation of his opening words “now you are dismissing (nunc dimittis) your servant. Commentator John Carroll notes that these words parallel the manumission statement when a master was freeing a slave. God’s salvation through Jesus means freedom for the enslaved and life-giving revelation for all of God’s people.

The Nunc Dimittis has been set to a variety of musical genres from Gregorian chant to the contemporary liturgical music of the Estonian composer Arvo Päert. It is often linked with the Magnificat of Mary, which also acknowledges God’s saving intervention for all people.

For discussion
Christians have sometimes overlooked or even tried to deny that Jesus was a Jew. What does it mean to you that Jesus was a Jew? Does this have any significance for your relationship with Jews or with the state of Israel today? Simeon eagerly awaited God’s salvation for Israel. What saving act(s) of God are you eagerly awaiting?

James BrashlerJAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.