As we approach the traditional season of Christmas, we (in the Northern Hemisphere) are all too aware of the gathering gloom of midwinter, and are anxious to help dispel the darkness with a multiple array of bright lights.
The prophet Isaiah addressed this dilemma when he proclaimed that “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light” (Isa 9.2) – although he was thinking more of man’s spiritual condition than their general environment.
Written around 600 years before Christ, this is one of his many references to the coming Messiah, and points (in the preceding verse) to the very region where he would engage in most of his earthly ministry – “Galilee of the nations (or Gentiles)”.
In the midst of the oppression of Roman occupation, a Jewish virgin would give birth to a son, who would be ascribed a series of majestic titles including ‘Prince of Peace’.
As with Christians, Jews at this time of year also light up the darkness with a glittering host of candles to celebrate Hanukkah, the feast of Dedication.
I well remember sharing the excitement of the occasion with Jerusalem residents five years ago as joyful groups celebrated in restaurants festooned with brightly coloured lights and menorahs.
Though not among the prescribed seven feasts dating back to the time of Moses, Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish festival Jesus himself attended and is celebrated close to Christmas (appropriately though not intentionally) to mark God’s miraculous intervention at the time of the reign of the ruthless Syrian-Greek emperor Antiochus Epiphanes who desecrated the Jewish Temple by sacrificing a pig there and blasphemously proclaimed himself God.
Judah Maccabee led a brave and successful revolt against the tyrant in 164 BC and re-established temple worship (Hanukkah means ‘Dedication’) with the aid of the menorah (seven-branched candlestick) which burned miraculously for eight days despite having only enough oil for a day. The Greeks had polluted the rest.
In my opinion, the feast also foreshadows the coming of the Jewish Messiah Yeshua (Jesus), described as “the light of the world”, and I’m sure it’s no coincidence that it falls around the same time as Christmas (even though it is more likely that Jesus was born in the autumn) when much of the world is lit up with elaborate decorations to commemorate his birth some 2,000 years ago.
Messianic Jews (who do believe Jesus is their Messiah) celebrate both feasts and it is interesting to note that the sight of a menorah as part of the festive decorations is increasingly common.
And yet at a time when billions of people celebrate the coming of light into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, a dark evil casts a shadow over the place of his birth as sabre-rattling surrounding nations threaten the very existence of Israel.
Paradoxically, the spectre of Armageddon continues to loom each year just when the world focuses on the coming of the ‘Prince of Peace’.
Armageddon is not some Sci-Fi invention of a film-maker’s overactive imagination. It’s a reality; for there will come a time, very possibly in the near future, when the nations of the earth will clash in a catastrophic battle on the plains of Megiddo in northern Israel – the Bible makes this clear. But then the Messiah will return in power and great glory to put an end to war and usher in a thousand-year reign of absolute peace.
As my wife and I were reminded a few years ago in a Christmas card from the Jews for Jesus organisation, the baby born at Bethlehem is the only hope for peace in the Middle East.
Explaining the feast of Hanukkah, a Jews for Jesus spokeswoman said: “That is why each year we kindle our lamps, one light for each of the eight nights,” adding: “The Hanukkah Menorah has nine branches and we light each of the branches with the ninth candle, the shammas or servant candle. The light of the menorah reminds us of our Messiah Jesus, the Servant King, of whom the Apostle John said: ‘The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.’
“We can’t help but see the connection between the light of Hanukkah and the light that pierced the darkness when Yeshua (Jesus) was born. During this Hanukkah and Christmas season, let us remember that the light of the world has come among us to bring hope and life to all who believe.”
But as Jesus was misunderstood, so are his followers. As John also wrote: “The light (of Christ) shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood (or overcome) it.” (John 1.5)
Conflict over Jesus’ claims was also apparent during the Hanukkah feast he attended. John writes: “Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered, ‘I did tell you, but you do not believe…’” (John 10.22-25)
Millions of Christians today testify to being among those who once walked in darkness, but have since seen “a great light”. Their testimony is the same as the slave ship captain turned hymn-writer John Newton, who so beautifully reflected the truths of the gospel with the words: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me; I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
Charles Gardner is author of Israel the Chosen, available from Amazon; Peace in Jerusalem, available from olivepresspublisher.com; and A Nation Reborn, available from Christian Publications International