Within forty days of the birth of a male child, the mother and child were to come to the temple and fulfill the prescribed rite of purification. Mary, Joseph and Jesus acted obediently and brought Jesus to Jerusalem for this purpose. Simeon, probably one of the priests serving in the temple, was receiving revelations from God regarding the Messiah. Moved by God’s Spirit, he takes the child Jesus in his arms and utters two oracles. The first blesses God for the salvation He brings to humanity through this child (Luke 2:29-32, the Nunc Dimittis). The second oracle contrasts totally with the first (Luke 2:34-35) being an oracle of judgment. Within it he claims that the baby Jesus “is destined…to be a sign that will be spoken against” (Luke 2:34).
In Isaiah 7 God promises to give Israel a sign – “The virgin shall be with child and will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.” In the next chapter Isaiah says that the Lord God is Israel’s sanctuary, but still He is “a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall” (8:14). The reason for their destruction is their refusal to put their confidence in Him. In Simeon’s two oracles recorded in Luke 2 we find the same two ideas combined. The child Jesus is a sign and he will “cause the falling…of many in Israel” (Luke 2: 34), because they refuse to accept him as God’s sign.
The idea of a divine sign that is rejected or opposed by humanity should make us pause. For God to take initiative and reveal by a concrete sign to humanity what He intends to do for their salvation is in itself amazing. There is no requirement for God to be so forthcoming about His plans. But then, to have human beings reject or actively oppose the sign of divine intention generates greater amazement. Luke uses a passive participle (antilegomenon) to describe this active opposition, with the agent to be supplied from the context. Those who oppose or reject this divine sign include “many in Israel who stumble” and whose innermost thoughts are revealed by their opposition to God’s sign (Luke 2:35).
Luke uses this verb to describe the Sadducees “who deny (hoi antilegontes) that there is any resurrection” (20:27). Jesus promises his disciples that he will provide them with a message that “none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict (antieipein)” (21:15). At the conclusion the trial of Peter and John by the Sanhedrin Luke reports that “because they were seeing the man who was healed standing with them, they [the Sanhedrin] had nothing to say in refutation (antieipein)” (Acts 4:14). After Paul shares the Gospel with such success in Pisidia Antioch the Jewish people there “talked abusively (blasphemountes) against (antelegon) what Paul was saying”(Acts 13:45). Finally, as Acts concludes Paul is speaking to Jewish groups in Rome. He recounts his arrest and trials, indicating that he would have been released except that “the Jews objected (antilegonton)” (28:19). They insist they want to hear his views, “for we know that people everywhere are talking against (antilegetai) this sect” (28:22).
It is clear that Luke uses this verb particularly to describe religious conflict. When one group opposes the religious beliefs of another group, this is antilogia – opposition, disputation. Active, aggressive hostility is denoted. In several cases in Luke’s narratives this opposition is demonstrated in arrests, trials and physical beatings. There is passion and zeal wrapped up in such refutations.
For a sign from God to be treated in this fashion truly is a fundamental blasphemy, a slander against God of the worst kind. When the sign is God’s beloved sign, the hostile rejection becomes obscene. Luke sets the birth of Jesus within this ugly framework. This baby is the divine sign that people will contradict and oppose to their own destruction. As they reject God’s sign such people reveal their innermost loyalties, the central idolatry that fuels human resistance against God.
The writer of Hebrews encourages believers to endure suffering by reminding them of Jesus’ willingness to “scorn the shame” (12:2). He “endured the opposition (antilogian) of sinful men” (12:3).
Today, Christmas primarily symbolizes “peace on earth”. Luke affirms this as the promise God’s divine sign, Jesus Messiah, offers. But Luke also emphasizes the deep, constant human hostility to God’s message of love and reconciliation. The more we embrace Jesus as Lord and Saviour, the more we too will experience this opposition. May the peace we possess because Jesus came give us strength to endure the human opposition aroused against Jesus and his followers because of the truth of the Gospel. Today, this Christmas, followers of Jesus will be “the sign opposed”.
Application: as you reflect upon God’s word today:
- commit yourself once more to endure for Jesus’ sake the opposition that comes as we share the Good News of God.
- rejoice in Jesus’ willingness to endure ‘such opposition by sinful men’ so that we might be reconciled to God;
- reflect upon the wonder of God’s sign – the Lord Jesus, the baby lying in a manger;
- consider the nature of the opposition that rejected him as God’s Son and contributed to his humiliation and suffering at the Cross;
- 1. Paul in Romans 10:21 quotes from Isaiah 65:2 in describing Israel’s rejection of Jesus as Messiah. Isaiah calls Israel a “disobedient and obstinate (antilegonta) people”