How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

A light for revelation to the Gentiles

Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation 31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.

Simeon is a righteous and devout man who has been looking for the ‘consolation’ or ‘comforting’ (paraklēsis) of Israel. The phrase is an unmistakable reference to the theme of the ‘comforting’ of Israel and Zion that is found widely in Isaiah 40-66. The most interesting passage is Isaiah 52:7-10:

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” The voice of your watchmen - they lift up their voice; together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see the return of the LORD to Zion. Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

Here we have an announcement of ‘good news’ that YHWH is returning to Zion following Israel’s protracted exile; he will defeat Israel’s enemies and reign as king. This is what Jesus will enact prophetically when he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. The people of Israel will be comforted, forgiven; her judgment will be brought to an end (cf. Isaiah 40:1-2). Moreover, Isaiah’s statement ‘he has redeemed Jerusalem’ is picked up by Luke in his account of the prophetess Anna, who spoke of Jesus ‘to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem’ (Lk. 2:38).

When Isaiah says that ‘all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God’, he does not mean that all the ends of the earth will be saved or that they will hear the gospel. He means that the nations will see what God has done for his people. Arguably, Simeon makes the same limited point when he speaks of a salvation that has been ‘prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles’ (Luke 2:30-31). The salvation of this oppressed people in the midst of the powerful and hostile nations of the world will reveal to the world the true nature of YHWH, especially his faithfulness towards the people of his promise.

Psalm 98:1-3 speaks of the salvation of Israel that God has ‘made known’; his righteousness has been ‘revealed… in the sight of the nations’. ‘All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.’ In Isaiah the servant of the Lord will bring about the restoration of Israel and in the process will be ‘a light for the nations’ (Is. 49:6; cf. 42:6). He will release the prisoners from darkness (Is. 49:6; cf. 42:7; 61:1), he will open the eyes of the blind (42:7); he will ‘bring back the preserved of Israel’ (49:6). But this salvation will have an impact on the nations: they will see what God has done for his people (52:10), they will see the character of his righteousness and justice, they will acknowledge his power and glory (49:7), they will be instrumental in bringing back the scattered Jews to Zion (49:22; 60:4), they will travel to see the ‘light’ of Israel, bringing tribute and praise (60:1-14), they will recognize the people of Israel as ‘priests of the Lord… ministers of our God’ (61:6), they will see the righteousness and glory of Israel (62:2).

The point is that what is envisaged in the birth stories is not a universal salvation but the deliverance of a people from oppression and the restoration of worship and justice. This is a localized event, but it will not go unnoticed in the world; it will have a profound impact on the nations. The journey of the magi to pay homage to the new king exemplifies this.

A narrative theology needs to respect these constraints. But a narrative theology must also, of course, ask questions about where this national salvation leads. What is the place in the world of a people that has been saved by the child who was to travel a path of suffering obedience in order to become Israel’s king?