Hanukkah – History Meets Prophecy
Since the Hebrew Scriptures close with the prophet Malachi foretelling of a Messenger from God who would appear before the Messiah, and Jesus’ ministry begins with John the Baptist calling the nation to repentance, most Christians assume that the intervening period of about four centuries includes little that is of any spiritual or Biblical significance. While this era is accurately known as the “silent years” in that no prophetic voice from God is heard during this time, it is a mistake for Christians to think of it as unimportant. Many of the prophetic visions of Daniel play out during this time. Most notably, the incredible and swift ascendancy of Alexander the Great and the kingdom of Greece to worldwide prominence. This period also sets the backdrop for the events that led to the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Both stories are tied together and hold important lessons for Christians.
In addition to military dominance, Alexander successfully inculcated the Greek language, culture, and general worldview into most of the known world. He also adopted mostly benign, even benevolent policies toward the Jews in their newly restored homeland. For the most part, Jews in Israel and beyond enjoyed a certain degree of liberty and prosperity. But the acquiescence in some of the advances of Hellenism would soon develop into acceptance of some of the most offensive elements of Paganism. After Alexander’s death and the fragmentation of his kingdom, Antiochus Epiphanes came to power and sought to impose Greek culture upon God’s people. That he became largely successful in doing so is not the most disturbing part of the narrative.
Two deeply regrettable facts stand out as the real tragedies of the assimilation of God’s people into the Pagan world”¦The first is that far too many Jews seemed to have no problem blending Greek culture, ideas, and even religion with their own. Secondly, the Seleucid ruler was not content to imbue Jewish life with Hellenistic traditions, he sought to eliminate every meaningful aspect of Torah observance from Judaism. Torah scrolls were outlawed and burned, sacrifices were stopped and an idol erected on the altar, a pig was sacrificed on the temple grounds and violence was carried out against Jews who practiced their religion.
It is in this milieu that an aged priest on the outskirts of Jerusalem begins a historic uprising. A priest named Mattathias, unwilling to forsake the Law or compromise with the ungodly ingresses of Hellenism in matters of his faith, refuses an order from the Seleucid officer to offer pagan sacrifices. Then, when a fellow Jew ascends the altar to comply, Mattathias kills him on the altar, then dispatches Antiochus’ officer and recedes to the hills of Judea where he and his five sons initiate a protracted series of guerilla assaults on the Syro-Phoenician forces of Antiochus. These exploits-led mainly by the young son of Mattathias, Judas Maccabeus (“the Hammer”)- are recorded in the non-canonical books of 1 and 2 Maccabees. Eventually, under the inspired leadership of this priestly family, the Jews won back their religious freedom and restored temple worship. It is this amazing victory of a small band of untrained religious servants and the subsequent re-dedication of the Jerusalem Temple that led to the annual Jewish celebration of Hanukkah (Celebrated by Jesus in John 10 where it is known as the Feast of Dedication). Later Rabbinic legend states that there was only enough oil in the temple menorah to light the candles for one day, but the oil miraculously burned for eight days during the purification. Hence, Hanukkah, or the Feast of Dedication was born.
Silent years? Perhaps. But without question, these times were religiously charged and Biblically significant. The greatest spiritual significance to all this, is that Daniel prophesied almost all of it with devastating accuracy centuries before the events occurred; mainly in chapters 8 and 11 of his book. Much of Daniel’s prophecy, however, applies not only to this historical time period, but also to the last days and the coming of the Messiah. This is one reason why Jesus refers directly to Daniel when he warns his disciples about the “Abomination of Desolation” (Matt 24:15) in His main discourse about what the last days would be like before His return.
In other words, if the events of the Maccabees are to be replayed in the last days, then Christians should learn the lessons of the Maccabean revolt in order to stand faithful in those days. With Antiochus serving as a major foreshadowing of the Antichrist who is to come, then it will behoove us to be mindful of his tactics so that we can prepare our families, our churches, and ourselves to recognize his schemes.
With this in mind it is helpful to recall how all of this got started”¦Much of it came about through Alexander’s steady imposition of Hellenistic culture onto the Hebrew culture. But, more than this, it was the willingness on the part of God’s people to compromise with such a cultural advance that planted the seeds of destruction. There was one glaring example of the Greek cultural invasion that emerges as emblematic of the shift from a Hebraic framework of everyday life to a Hellenistic one. Of all things, a gymnastic stadium came to be built near the Temple mount with sanction from corrupt members of the priesthood.
Innocuous as it may seem, the athletic games that took place here in the shadow of Mount Zion represented a great divide between the distinctive elements of the polytheistic Greeks and the monotheistic Jews. While the Hebrew God was one, and created man in His image; the Greek gods were many, and were fashioned in the image of man. As such, they were essentially competitive in nature. The gods would quarrel with each other and take sides in human affairs. Hence, the competition of the games reflected, in some way, the nature of the gods.
The great scandal of these contests to was twofold. First, athletes competed completely naked and the culture was replete with various forms of lewdness and pederasty (homosexual relationships with young boys). This type of gratuitous eroticism was an unwelcome import to the sensibilities of traditional Torah-observant Jews. The games were also inseparable from the Greek’s idol worship. Contests were carried out in honor of various gods. Sacrifices were offered to Pagan gods in abundance, and athletes would routinely acknowledge the gods upon victory. Successful competitors were often viewed as heroes and were seen as superb representations of the gods on earth.
It was a classic example of slowly cooking the frog. Instead of being thrown into a rolling boil of persecution, religious intolerance, and forced conversion; the Jews were gradually lowered into a warm bath of cultural and religious compromise until they had capitulated so far that by the time Antiochus plunders and defiles the Temple, there is only a small band of faithful left to resist among God’s people. Daniel refers to these faithful; and they stand as a template for believers in the last days.
“¦The people who know their God will display strength and take action. And those who have insight among the people will give understanding to the many; yet they will fall by sword and by flame, by captivity and by plunder, for many days”¦Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. (Dan 11:32-33; 12:3)
It seems we find ourselves right in the middle of a similar assimilation campaign. As the Church has mostly abandoned the Hebraic underpinnings of our faith and replaced them with a Hellenistic foundation borrowed from the post-apostolic fathers and the reformers, we face the same types of insidious threats. Furthermore, as much of contemporary Christianity has exchanged a Bible-centered expression of their faith with an experiencebased theology, we have abandoned our basis for examining such things objectively. The parallels are interesting:
- A shift from political leadership which held benevolent policies toward God’s people to a leadership vacuum which was filled by those who undermined a Biblical worldview.
- Willing adoption of Pagan culture spearheaded by the nation’s youth.
- Athletes venerated to hero stature and given an elevated status in society.
- Violence as entertainment.
- Rampant homosexuality that was considered culturally normative.
- A hyper-sexualized advance of culture usurping traditional moral standards.
- Blending of Pagan religious practices with a nominally Biblical lifestyle.
With the same types of threats looming over Western Christianity, the question is not whether we will end up like the Jews of the inter-testamental period; most of the church has already comfortably assimilated to the culture. The real question is the one Jesus asked in His parable on prayer found in Luke 18:7-8:
“¦Shall not God bring about justice for His elect, who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? I tell you that He will bring about justice for them speedily. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?
The real question we must answer is; are there any Maccabees left? And, more than this, will we be among them before the Lord returns? Will our families be among those who know our God and take action? Will our churches be the ones who have insight and lead many to righteousness? If so, Daniel tells us there will be a purging. A purification among God’s people. But are we prepared to endure such a process for the sake of truth? In an era of rampant political correctness, will we have the courage to tell the truth? In an age of feelings, will we recognize the importance of understanding the truth? Against the onslaught of deception and temptation to compromise, will we have the faith to stand firm and trust God to the end? I can only hope to answer for myself and my family.
I can only work to lay the proper foundation in my church. But it is incumbent on each Christian to answer for themselves. And would that more churches saw the holiday season, and every day, as an opportunity to emulate the Maccabbean family as the last bastion of defense against the enemy’s attack.