That Jewish Christmas?

This is part of a series of essays I wrote in 2018 to explain the Biblical Appointed Times (mo'adim) to my family members. If you'd like to read the other papers in this series, you can find them linked here:

  1. Happy New Year! (four months early)
  2. Shabbat shalom!
  3. Passover & Unleavened Bread
  4. Pentecost
  5. The Day of Loud Noise
  6. The Day of Atonement
  7. The Grand Finale
  8. That Jewish Christmas?

This time of year, it's become common to hear the greeting, “Happy holidays.” Christians tend to be put off by this, since it seems like a not-so-covert attempt to stamp out the celebration of the birth of Jesus from this time of year. I know many Christians are aware that Jesus wasn't born at Christmas, but that isn't the point. It is dearly-loved in family traditions and as a celebration to honor the birth of our Savior. The secularization of “the holidays” is seen as an attack on the foundation of our faith.

It may seem from my earlier letters that I am doing something of the same thing. Over the past nine months, I've explained how Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread form an unbroken prophetic link from the Hebrew children's deliverance from bondage in Egypt to our deliverance from bondage to sin. In comparison, Good Friday and Easter don't carry that same weight. I've shown how Pentecost, which is commonly thought of as the birthday of Christianity, actually goes back to the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, and how it illustrates the Torah written on our hearts in the New Covenant. I've walked you through the Day of Trumpets, the herald of the new King of the Nation of God and the clarion call of our resurrection from the sleep of death. I've shared the solemnity of the Day of Atonement, when Christ will offer his own blood in the Temple of his God in heaven so we may stand before him. And most recently, I've shown how God is always with his people—whether dwelling in a tent in the wilderness, or in a temple in Jerusalem, or in the body of his Messiah—and how the birth of Jesus during the Feast of Tabernacles foreshadows the Millennial Kingdom.

So where does that leave Christmas? Does it have anything to do with the birth of Christ in history? We can ascribe whatever meaning we want to a day, but there is no Christmas or Easter in the pages of our Bibles. Please don't think I'm saying it is wrong to celebrate these days, but they are traditions of men not ordained by God. But there is another holiday in the bitter cold of winter has a lot to do with Jesus' birth, as well as his ministry as an adult—it even has big prophetic implications for the Tribulation that is soon to come. I expect you know where I'm going with this, as it is in the title of this document, but I'm speaking of Hanukkah.

Hanukkah is a holiday with several names. The word “hanukkah” itself means “dedication”. That is what it's called in John 10:22-23. It's also called the Festival of Lights. There is a lot of folklore surrounding this date, so I'd like to explore a little bit of the history and the mythology of it. But first, I said it has to do with the birth of Jesus. How, if he was born in late-September? If you count back with me about nine months, you reach December. I can't say this with certainty, but wouldn't it be like our God to have the Light of the world be conceived during the Festival of Lights? (We'll revisit the title “Light of the world” later in this paper.) In fact, if this were when Jesus were conceived, then Gabriel approached Mary during Hanukkah while she was in the temple—not in her home. She likely went home from Hanukkah with Zechariah's family and returned to her parents' household after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, since John was born on Passover. Hanukkah is not listed in Leviticus 23 as one of the Appointed Times of Yehovah, and yet he chose to have his son conceived during that time anyway.

So what is Hanukkah? Since none of you are Catholic, you've probably never read about it before. It has its origins in two books called First and Second Maccabees.1 I don't know if you have an opinion on what books should or shouldn't be in the Bible and for what reasons, but when it comes to the Old Testament, our canon comes straight from the Jews. The Catholic Bible has extra books in it compared to ours (other Christian groups have even more). This is because the Catholic Bible descends from the Greek Septuagint. This is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament), and it differs from the Hebrew Bible used by Jews today. The Protestant Bible is based in the Hebrew texts preserved by the descendants of the Pharisees, who didn't settle on a canon until 100-150 years after Christ, and several books were nearly left out (Song of Songs, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Esther).2 We can't know for sure why the Pharisees rejected 1 & 2 Maccabees from their Bible (and ours), but they had a centuries-long feud with the descendants of the heroes of those books, so that might have something to do with it.3 At any rate, it is unlikely that you are familiar with the events leading up to Hanukkah since you can't read about them in your Bible the way you can Exodus or Leviticus.

If you arrange our Old Testament in chronological order, the final book would be Esther. Then we have a 400-year jump to Luke 1 and the birth of John the Baptist. It is during this gap where we find 1 & 2 Maccabees. When Esther closes, the Kingdom of Persia is still in power, although many Jews have migrated back to Israel already. But several generations later, Alexander the Great defeated the Persians and became the first Grecian Emperor of the Mediterranean.

After Alexander's death, a wicked man named Antiochus Epiphanes succeeded in the rule of the region including Israel. Epiphanes (whose name means the appearance of a god) removed the items of worship from the temple in Jerusalem and tried to force the Jews to give up the Torah and become Greeks. He forbade circumcision, banned the Sabbath rest, forced the Jews to eat pork on pain of death, and built a gymnasium where athletes would train in the nude. Second Maccabees tells the story of a faithful Jew in his 90s who refused to eat pork and was tortured to death for his boldness, as well as seven brothers and their widow mother who were inspired by the old man's faith and embraced death rather than dishonor the Torah or the God who gave it.

However, many other Jews, particularly among the youth, welcomed this invitation to throw off the customs of their ancestors and embrace the hedonism of Greece. (Many of the overbearingly strict Pharisee practices Jesus taught against have their origin in this time period, when faithful Jews wanted to distance themselves from anything remotely pagan.) A corrupt priest named Jason facilitated all of this. He bought his way into the priesthood and partnered with Epiphanes to convert the Jews to paganism.

The very worst crime committed by Antiochus Epiphanes was to sacrifice a pig in the temple and erect a statue of Zeus therein. This infamous event is known as the “abomination which causes desolation”. We will revisit it later.

But God had a remnant. A faithful priest named Mattathias fled into the wilderness to organize a revolution. When he died, his son, Judas Maccabeus (the Hammer), took over as the leader. Judas and his brothers eventually established a free Judean nation for several generations,4 but that is moving too far ahead. One of the first things Judas and his family did after recapturing Jerusalem was to remove the altar that had been violated with pig's blood and dedicate a new one so sacrifices to Yehovah could resume. They celebrated a makeshift Feast of Tabernacles two months late, which became known as the Feast of Dedication.

The other name for Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights, and that is due to a myth (which may be true) surrounding the first Feast of Dedication. The story goes that the Maccabees only had enough oil to light the Menorah (the seven-branch lamp in the temple) for one day, and it would take a full eight days to prepare a new batch of oil. But God prolonged the oil for the entire eight days so the Menorah wouldn't go out before they made new oil. Whether or not it's true, Jesus picked up on the theme of light in one of his lengthiest sermons in the Gospels.

The Gospels contain some lengthy teachings of Jesus, but it can be easy to overlook their length because of chapter divisions that break up the text unnaturally. John 12:12 begins the final week of Jesus' life, and chapters 14-17 are probably the longest sermon, preached between the Last Supper and the Garden of Gethsemane. But only a few chapters earlier, specifically 8:12-10:39, John recorded what transpired while Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Feast of Dedication.

It was during the Festival of Lights when Jesus proclaimed, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). This statement sparked off a vicious debate in which the Pharisees repeated accused Jesus of being a bastard child, while Jesus countered that they were the spawn of Satan. When Jesus claimed to be superior to Abraham (8:58), the Jews lost it and tried to murder him on the spot.

Chapter 9 is a brief intermission where Jesus healed a man born with blindness. I won't go into it here, but Jesus broke several of the Pharisees' traditions concerning the Sabbath, making them even angrier. This miracle spawned another sermon. This time, Jesus said, “I am the door of the sheep” (10:7), referring to a gate in a fence that would keep sheep from running off and getting attacked. He also said, “I am the good shepherd” (10:11). This is particularly relevant to Hanukkah. The leaders of Israel were often described as shepherds in Scripture, and this would no doubt include the corrupt priesthoods of Jason and the Sadducees. The prophet Jeremiah wrote a lot about the evil shepherds of Israel; I think we'll conclude this paper with that section of Scripture.

So we see that Hanukkah has great historical impact as showing how Yehovah defended his honor through Judas Maccabeus when many Jews were abandoning God and the Torah. We see how Jesus was conceived during the Festival of Lights, and how he announced himself as the Light of the world and the Good Shepherd, in contrast to the wicked shepherds. But I also said Hanukkah has a prophetic element to it that can inform us of future events.

As I said earlier, Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the altar in the temple by sacrificing a pig on it, and this is called the “abomination of desolation”. Some 450 years before Christ, the prophet Daniel had a vision from Gabriel which cryptically conveyed the timing of the death of Jesus. As I said in my paper on the Day of Atonement:

“In chapter 9 of his book, he outlines a period of time during which God will accomplish all his purposes for Israel and the world. Notably, there is a seven-year period which is yet to take place when God will ‘finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place’ (9:24). This is known in Christianity as the Tribulation. The Tribulation will begin in the fall, probably on a Day of Trumpets. It is worth noting that the book of Revelation describes seven judgments that are announced by trumpets—the seventh trumpet being the most significant. I believe each judgment will come in successive years, although there are multiple interpretations for the timing of these events.

“Halfway through this time, probably on a Passover, a man known as the Antichrist will enter the temple in Jerusalem (which will probably be rebuilt very soon) and defile it. He will declare himself to be higher than all the gods (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12). This will set off the last 3 ½ years, distinguished as the Great Tribulation. This will be a time of terrifying persecution for Jews and Christians alike. But the seventh trumpet marks the day of our redemption, when the ‘dead in Christ will rise, and we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds’ (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). The seventh trumpet also marks the beginning of the ‘bowl judgments’. The next ten days will be the worst in the history of Creation.”

When I wrote, “Halfway through this time, probably on a Passover, a man known as the Antichrist will enter the temple in Jerusalem… and defile it,” I wasn't making things up. In referring to this incident prophesied by Daniel, Jesus called it the “abomination of desolation” (Matthew 24:15-16). This is a direct quote from Daniel 9:27, but given what we've learned about Antiochus Epiphanes, it's also surprising. You see, the Jewish people believed that Antiochus was the fulfillment of Daniel's prophecy. To them, this was sealed in time. It had been nearly 200 years since Judas Maccabeus dedicated a new altar in the temple to replace the one desecrated by Epiphanes. But Jesus said there was another one yet to come. When we compare all of Scripture, as I've done my best to do, we see that the true abomination of desolation will occur midway through the seven-year Tribulation. But we should still look back to 1 Maccabees for a better understanding of what this will look like. I believe that the new abomination of desolation will look a lot like the old one—possibly even a pig slaughtered on the altar of a newly-rebuilt temple.

In Ezekiel 40-48, we see a lengthy description of a glorious temple that will be built during the Messianic Kingdom. Perhaps this temple will be completed by Jesus himself during Hanukkah. I'm just speculating, but it's a possibility.

For being the holiday with which I am least familiar and had to do the most research, this paper was surprisingly short. I hope it didn't jump around too much. But as promised, I want to end with Jeremiah's prophecy concerning the wicked shepherds of Israel (23:1-8).

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares Yehovah. Therefore thus says Yehovah, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares Yehovah. Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares Yehovah.

“Behold, the days are coming, declares Yehovah, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘Yehovah is our righteousness.’

“Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares Yehovah, when they shall no longer say, ‘As Yehovah lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ but ‘As Yehovah lives who brought up and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.’ Then they shall dwell in their own land.”

This is the Gospel. God entrusted his words and his Torah to shepherds who were abusive of their authority, so he has raised up a Branch (referring to a new shoot from a cut-down olive tree) from the line of David to replace them. He will restore the two Houses of Israel back under one government in the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Kingdom of our Savior will have no end until he has conquered all his enemies. This is our great hope and expectation.

Judas Maccabeus and his brothers were some of the few faithful Jews left in Judea, but they were zealous for Yehovah and his Torah. They refused to compromise their faith by breaking the Sabbath or eating unclean animals. Other faithful men and women were brutally tortured for these things. I hope we never live to see such days, but we very well may, so we should look to their stories and take hope from them. Moreover, we should look to Jesus, “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2)! If God can do such great things through men and women who have unwavering faith in him, then he can do the same things through us. “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12).

Hanukkah gives us so much to celebrate. It isn't about a baby in a manger; that was two months ago. But it is about the Light of the world being conceived in the womb of a virgin daughter of Israel. It is about the Good Shepherd coming to lead his people out of the corrupt, compromising world systems. It is about the warning of the coming Antichrist. And it is about the future Messianic Temple, which will be the seat of Jesus' power as he overthrows the corrupt rulers of the world in the name of Yehovah his God.

  1. There are four books of Maccabees, but 3 and 4 are more like commentaries on 1 and 2.
  4. Several generations later, their descendants became just as corrupt as the wicked priest Jason, and they became the Sadducees of the New Testament. They persecuted the Pharisees mercilessly, which is why the Pharisees hated them so much.


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