About 175 years before Messiah came into the world, the Jewish people were in a very difficult situation. We were living under the rule of a Greek king named Antiochus IV, who pressured our people to adopt the culture and pagan religion of the Greeks.
Compounding this problem, we also faced danger from an ongoing military conflict between the Seleucid Empire in the north (Syria) and the Ptolemaic Empire in the south (Egypt). The Seleucids and Ptolemys were two of the four dynasties inherited from Alexander the Great’s empire, and each sought to gain military supremacy over the other, and Israel was sandwiched right in between the two.
Geographically, Israel is a land-bridge between three of Earth’s super-continents. Historically there was always some great army marching through Israel on their way to Europe, Asia or Africa. But I submit to you that Israel has always played a God-intended, pivotal role in the redemption of the world. Through the prophet Ezekiel God declared “This is Jerusalem! I have placed her at the center of the nations, with lands around her” (Ezekiel 5:5).
I also submit to you that it is no accident of history that little Israel has, time and again, overcome enemies far greater in number and far greater in military capability than she; for God is with Israel, and He is the God Who Delights to Give Victory to the Unlikely.
- God gave victory to childless Abraham and Sarah and Isaac was born
- God gave victory to helpless Israel against Egypt’s army and we left a free people
- God gave victory to timid Gideon + 300 against a vast Midianite army
- God gave victory to young David against a 9’6” giant named Goliath
- God gave victory to Elijah against 850 men on Mt. Carmel
So when King Antiochus IV, who called himself Epiphanes (“God manifest”) issued a decree of persecution against the Jewish people in 167 BC, he was setting himself up for defeat. Reversing earlier Seleucid policies of tolerance for Jewish religious freedom, Antiochus commanded our people, under pain of death, to pay homage to the Greek god Zeus and to get on board with the Hellenization of that part of the world.
Antiochus seized control over the Temple in Jerusalem and put a stop to the daily sacrifices. His soldiers transported a statue of Zeus throughout Israel, requiring the leading men in each town to bow to it. The conflict came to a head at the Judean town of Modi’in when a priestly family nicknamed Maccabee (“hammer”) put the Seleucid soldiers to death, and launched a two-year rebellion against the mighty empire of Antiochus.
On the face of it, the rag-tag Israeli army didn’t stand a chance. Vastly outnumbered and outmatched for firepower, by all rights we shouldn’t even have survived long, let alone been victorious. But victory is precisely what the Lord God gave our people. The Maccabees defeated Antiochus’ armies and recaptured the Temple.
But what they found there was horrendous. The joy we initially felt at our deliverance gave way to sadness, when it was discovered that the Temple had been utterly desecrated. Idols had been erected throughout its corridors and pigs had been slaughtered on the altar in the Holy Place. And so began the necessary cleansing and repair of the Temple. When the work was complete, the Temple was rededicated to the service of God. The Hebrew word for dedication is Chanoch, and so the name of the feast commemorating our victory and the cleansing and rededication of the Temple is Chanukkah.
Talmudic legend suggests that when it was time to rekindle the eternal flame in the Temple, only one day’s worth of consecrated oil could be found, but that it lasted eight full days – time enough to press, prepare and consecrate more olive oil. Today at Chanukkah children play with the dreidel – a four-sided top they spin to win pennies or candy. The letters appearing on each of the four sides are an acronym for the words “A Great Miracle Happened There”. Like Rabbi Loren, I regard the hoopla over the claimed miracle of the oil to be missing the mark. The great miracle of Chanukkah isn’t that oil burned longer than it normally would. The great miracle is that God used an outnumbered, outgunned and unlikely little group of men to defeat a much greater military force, and restored freedom and true worship in Israel.
Sadly, it didn’t take long before our hard-won freedom gave way to political corruption. The Hasmonean dynasty – political heirs of the Maccabees, became deeply corrupt, and Israel was weakened morally and militarily. We were no match for the rising Roman Republic, and were quickly overtaken.
Those who suggest that Chanukkah is a non-biblical feast and therefore we should not celebrate it need to read their Bibles more carefully. Messiah Yeshua Himself made it a point to come to the Temple during Chanukkah, as recorded in John chapter 10: At that time the Feast of the Dedication took place at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Yeshua was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon. The Jewish leaders then gathered around Him, and were saying to Him, “How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Yeshua answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe…” (John 10:22-25a).
How ironic it is that Messiah Yeshua, the Light of the World, should visit the Temple at the Festival of Lights and His light be rejected by Israel’s supposed ‘luminaries’. But that comes as no surprise to those of us who regularly study the Scriptures. It has always delighted God to bypass the arrogant and reveal Himself to the humble. Adonai delights to give victory, not to the great, the mighty, the renowned, the politically well-connected and the glitterati, but to the humble, the lowly… even to the despised.
For consider your calling, brothers, that by human standards not many of you were wise, not many mighty, not many of nobility. But God has chosen the (ostensibly) foolish (ones) of the world so that He might put the wise to shame, and God has chosen the (ostensibly) weak (ones) of the world so that He might put the mighty to shame, and the (ostensibly) insignificant (ones) of the world and those regarded with contempt God has chosen; the “nothings” that He might render the “somethings” moot, that no human being should boast in the sight of God (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).
Chanukkah is the perfect holiday to celebrate ‘smallness’. We can rejoice in our weakness, because the One who holds us in the palm of His hands is eternal and mighty; and He will soon return and judge the world.
And in that regard, Chanukkah also points us to the future.
You see, the events of Chanukkah (the desecration of the Temple, and the persecution of God’s people) will play out again at the end of this Age. Like bookends, history will repeat itself. But Yeshua warned us that this time it will be far worse. Daniel also prophesied of the violence and darkness that would characterize the Last Days. In fact, the apostles Paul, John and Peter, each writing by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, warned of the deep spiritual darkness that will cover the earth immediately prior to Yeshua’s return.
So, yes, once again we’ll be outgunned and outnumbered, and many of us may be called upon to give up our lives rather than deny our faith. And by all reckoning it will appear hopeless for us… until that appointed time. But once again, God will break through into human history.
And Messiah’s Second Coming will herald 1,000 years of peace, prosperity, and joy across all the earth. His light will replace the darkness of this world. And unlike the Hasmonean dynasty that became so corrupt, there will be no dynasty; there will be no corruption. Messiah Himself will rule, and He is eternal. As Isaiah prophesied, “There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace; on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will accomplish this.”
We can truly say with Rabbi Paul, “When I am weak, then I am strong…”
So, as we’re lighting our Chanukkah menorahs over the next several days, and especially as we hold the shammash – the ‘servant’ candle, which brings light to the other candles, let’s remember Messiah Yeshua, the Light of the World, and the Great Servant of the Lord, who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.