“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.” (Luke 2:29-32)1
Some of you may recognize the above as the Nunc dimittis—the song of old Simeon as he beheld the Christ Child. It’s also part of the gospel lesson for the First Sunday after Christmas (year B): Luke 2:21-40.
Mary and Joseph have brought their newborn son to Jerusalem “To do for him what was customary under the law.” And within the temple precincts they meet this elderly gentleman. His name is Simeon, and Luke says of him: “… this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and … It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.”
Catching sight of the child and his parents, Simeon gathers the infant Jesus into his arms and praises God. Then, turning to the bewildered couple, Simeon offers both a blessing and a prophecy—one which is at once profound and ominous:
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed —and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Here, in this gospel pericope, Israel’s old covenant collides—jarringly—with the future. With the birth of this particular Jewish baby, the stage is being set for radical change—and old Simeon becomes its herald. I like the way Eugene Peterson has paraphrased Simeon’s prayer:
God, you can now release your servant;
release me in peace as you promised.
With my own eyes I’ve seen your salvation;
it’s now out in the open for everyone to see:
A God-revealing light to the non-Jewish nations,
and of glory for your people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32, The Message)2
If you pay careful attention to Simeon’s words, you will catch their echo later, as you read the letters of Paul—and perhaps most especially in his Letter to the Galatians:
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. (Gal. 3:23-26)
Before faith, we were prisoners under the law. Upon seeing Christ, Simeon asks God to release him. Unlock the cell. Dismiss the guard. Why? Because “With my own eyes I’ve seen your salvation.”
What’s more, “it’s now out in the open for everyone to see: A God-revealing light to the non-Jewish nations.”
That was Simeon’s bold declaration—that relationship with God is now up for grabs. Anyone who really wants it can have it—gentile or Jew, man or woman, adult or child.
As Paul told the Galatians: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:27-28)
Under the Old Covenant, God was seen as wholly other.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)
God is “the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity.” But as Isaiah pointed out, he is also the God who dwells “with those who are contrite and humble in spirit.”
From the beginning, God sought fellowship with his people—and especially with those who humbled themselves, who hungered and thirsted after righteousness.
But when faith came—when the New Covenant arrived, when Jesus was born—God went even further. He not only lived among us; he became one of us. And in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, humanity and divinity were perfectly reconciled. When he was grown to manhood, Jesus would express it this way: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.” (Matthew 5:17)
Christ came not to abolish the law, but to fulfil it. Paul says that the law was humanity’s “disciplinarian”—or, as other English versions have it, the law was our “guardian” or “tutor” or “teacher.” The New King James Version says that “the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” (Gal. 3:24)3
The purpose of the law was to bring humankind to Christ. But, again, God went one step further: he brought Christ to humankind. The law was not abolished. We’re still not supposed to kill, or steal, or lie, or make a mockery of our wedding vows. But, in Christ—in whom the law is fulfilled—in Christ, we discover nuances—shades and hues and colours beyond the black-and-white of austere regulation.
“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). But “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” (Luke 14:5)
“You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). But let the one whose heart is pure cast the first stone (John 8:7). And by the way, the moral of that story is: the pure of heart would never cast the stone.
The law was our teacher because it pointed us toward Christ. Jesus came to put human flesh on those bare bones of code and statute. In Christ, we see not only what God is like, but also who he is.
God gave the law because humanity’s relationship with him was broken. Which meant that all our human relationships were broken, as well. That’s the legacy of Eden. Human beings were created to have fellowship with their Creator—but in our guilt and anxiety, we want to hide ourselves from him. The worst part is, we seldom realize that’s what we’re doing.
So God gave the First Covenant as a way to define the problem—and also to provide solutions. See, there’s nothing evil or wrong about the law. The law points us toward an Ideal. It outlines proper behaviour, and enforces it with consequences. The law helps keep our worst impulses in check. But the law cannot make us righteous. The law cannot change our human hearts.
Like I said, under the first covenant—the Old Covenant—God was seen as wholly other. That, however, is the kind of God people genuinely fear. Because he is, after all is said and done, incomprehensible to us. To such a God, we can only respond—so it seems—with unquestioning, unflinching obedience.
Trouble is, we’re not so good at that. And it’s not a situation that fosters close relationship. What’s the solution?
I’ll say it again: Jesus came to put human flesh on the law. In Christ, we see not only what God is like, but also who he is. We can not only gaze upon his beauty and goodness and love; we can choose to embrace it. Christ Jesus is the New Covenant.
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. (Gal. 4:4-5)
Yes. Christ Jesus is the New Covenant. Not a code of law or a list of statutes, but a living, breathing, flesh-and-blood person such as we are; the firstborn among many siblings (Romans 8:29). This was the Second Covenant—the New Covenant—which God gave, when the time was right.
In Christ, God has expressed his desire for fellowship with us—for solidarity with us. When we accept Christ—when we understand that God loves us, and that nothing else matters except God’s love for us … That’s when we express our desire for fellowship with God. If the law has pointed us toward an Ideal, in Christ the Ideal rushes to meet us, with arms wide open. And in his embrace, we are transformed.
The Christmas season is all about that. At Christmas, we are invited to fall in love with God. For, in Christ—in this baby in the manger, as much as in the rabbi from Galilee—we behold the fullness of God.
So … if you haven’t already … I hope you fall in love with Jesus soon, in this new year. Not only does he fulfil the law, he fills it to overflowing with his boundless, undying love for us. Why should you resist such an exquisite suitor?
1Unless otherwise specified, all Scriptural quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
2The Message Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
3 New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson.