The Sign That Is Spoken Against

10 01 2010

The birth of the King –  the upheaval created by the sign that is spoken against.

We must note right away that with his birth as king at Bethlehem and the announcement of the glad tidings, his coming brought not peace but a sword, for it was his birth that provoked the fearful savagery of Herod against the infants of Bethlehem – and that was but the initial sign of the upheaval which the coming of the king and his kingdom meant for the kingdoms of this world. But it is to the prophetic utterances of Simeon and Mary that we must turn for our insight into what began to take place. Simeon’s utterance was made as the infant Jesus was brought into the temple, ‘Behold, this child is set for the falling and rising (keitai eis ptosin kai anastasin) of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (kai eis semeion antilegomenon) and a sword will pierce through your own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed (apokaluphthosin ek pollon kardion dialogismoi).'[1] Right from the start it is noted that this child is set for the falling and rising of many. Precisely the same thought is found in Mary’s Magnificat, ‘He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.'[2] But the same concept runs throughout the teaching of Jesus himself – coming out most startlingly perhaps in the parable of the labourers in the vineyard which is sandwiched in Matthew’s record between the words: ‘But many that are first will be last, and the last first’ and ‘So the last will be first, and the first last’ – for many are called but few are chosen.[3] That is how we are to look upon the life of this man born to be king at Bethlehem – he had come to set our life on a wholly new basis, the basis of pure grace, but that involved a complete revolution, a radical inversion of status for mankind, a critical re-orientation of all things.

But what did Simeon mean by ‘the sign that is spoken against’, ‘the sign that is contradicted’? Luke only uses this term semeion of the birth of Jesus and of the eschatological import of his death of which Jesus himself spoke in the ‘little apocalypse’.[4] That is also the significance of the sign of Jonah,[5] and that is Jesus’ answer, as Matthew and Mark see it, to the request for a sign. The sign, the semeion, is the cross. In the fourth Gospel, semeion is used of the miraculous deeds that point forward to the cross, beginning with the miracle of Cana,[6] when Jesus says that his ‘hour is not yet come’ using language repeated six other times in the Gospel, all making it clear that the semeion in question points forward to the eschatological hour of ultimate decision and passion on the cross. the miraculous events are thus drawn into the onward march of Jesus  toward his supreme hour, and are made to be proleptic and sacramental signs or pointers of the supreme semeion when Jesus will die and rise again, and so refer to the whole of our human existence, spoken of already in the  change of water into wine, the destruction and raising of the temple, etc. It is then that the cross and resurrection will set man’s life on a wholly new basis and be the falling and rising of many in Israel. Then the hungry will be filled with good things, the rich will be sent empty away, and the proud will be scattered in the imagination of their hearts, or as St Paul put it, the cross makes foolish the wisdom of this world.[7] That is why he speaks of the cross as a skandalon and a moria, scandal and foolishness.

But that is why Simeon also speaks of this  semeion as a semeion antilegomenon, a sign contradicted, or spoken against.[8] Again we may turn to the way in which this came to be understood in the theological tradition of the church, in which we find the same thoughts embedded and obviously going back to the original witness. See Hebrews 12,[9] where the writer summons the church to look away from themselves to Jesus the author and finisher of the course of faith who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despised the shame and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. Then he adds, ‘Consider him who endured such contradiction, antilogian, of sinners against himself, lest you also be weary and faint in your soul.'[10] What Jesus endured was the contradiction of sinners, the antilogia of the hamartolon, the word found so frequently in the Gospels to describe the very people whom Jesus sought to befriend and gather back into the fellowship of God but who turned against him at last and cried, ‘Crucify him, crucify him’. There at the cross Jesus endured the full contradiction of sinners and of sin against him. But that was precisely what he came to do, as we shall see.

T.F Torrance, Incarnation:The Person and Life of Christ, pp.140-142, Paternoster, 2008.

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