When the stars lined up to lighten the path of the Wise Men as they travelled from the East to worship the new-born King of the Jews, it was the dawning of an amazing new era.
Now, 2,000 years later, the Jewish feast of Hanukkah coincides with Christmas. They are usually close together, but such a precise convergence doesn’t often happen. Both are festivals of light cheerily illuminating our dreary winter days with sparkling symbols of God’s intervention in human affairs.
But at a time of unprecedented threats both to Israel and the Gentile Christian world, are we about to see God’s light shine as never before in the midst of the darkness, with growing recognition – especially in Israel – of the Messiah who appeared as a helpless babe in Bethlehem?
Special candles will be lit all over Jerusalem to remind her people of the time, in 167 BC, when God came to their rescue. The ruthless Syrian-Greek emperor Antiochus Epiphanes had desecrated the Jewish Temple by sacrificing a pig there and blasphemously proclaiming himself God. Judah Maccabee led a brave and successful revolt against the tyrant 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.
I believe this event foreshadowed another great rescue, less than two centuries later, when the Jewish Messiah – the light of all mankind (John 1.4, New Testament) – was born in a stable at nearby Bethlehem, as prophesied in the Scriptures (Micah 5.2). And now much of the world is lit up with brightly-coloured decorations to commemorate his birth.
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light…” Isaiah prophesied of Yeshua (Isaiah 9.2) who did not at first lead Israel in a military victory, although that would indeed happen one day (Zechariah 12.9), but came to cast his glorious light on a dark world, and bring peace, hope and comfort to all those who seek him.
The Wise Men travelled a thousand miles to worship Yeshua, bringing gifts of gold and frankincense (Isaiah 60.6). Should we not follow their example by giving him our best treasures, laying down our lives and letting him fill our hearts, minds and souls with his holy presence?
I love Christmas, partly because it draws my faith back to its roots in Israel. Tragically, much of the Western church seem for the rest of the year to have divorced themselves from the Jewish state, as if it were unrelated to the ongoing story of the church.
But there is no getting away from the Messiah’s birth being inextricably linked with Bethlehem and Jerusalem, as the carols clearly reflect: Once in royal David’s city, O little town of Bethlehem, O come, O come, Emmanuel… shall come to thee O Israel. And, in the First Nowell (an archaic word for Christmas), the chorus keeps repeating the line “born is the King of Israel!”
The Bible clearly teaches that the Messiah will come first as the “suffering servant” (Isaiah 53) and then, in the fullness of time, as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, ruling and reigning from Jerusalem as the ‘Lion of the tribe of Judah’ (Revelation 5.5) after finally defeating God’s enemies on the mountains of Israel.
So it is that, as with his first coming, the focus returns to Israel for his second advent. Should we Christians not more adequately prepare ourselves for this great event by re-aligning our hearts with the hopes and aspirations of God’s chosen people? We are in this together.
The anti-Semitic hatred currently manifested through Islamic State and related terrorist groups (and in past generations through Haman, Hitler and others) is directed at those who look to the God of Israel – first the Jews, then the Christians. Encouraged by growing co-operation on this level in the face of an implacable foe, we look to increasing revelation for all that the child born to a virgin (Isaiah 7.14) is the true Messiah – Emmanuel (God with us) – who fulfilled all the Jewish Scriptures. As the carol put it so beautifully, “He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all.” It’s an awesome truth. He is the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9.6) promised, first to the Jews, and also to the Gentiles (Romans 1.16).
Friends from Ireland, Velma and Alan Beattie, at a Christian worship festival in Antrim, Northern Ireland, recently heard the amazing first-hand account of a man who had just returned from Ethiopia, where he had been to look for a remote Jewish village that is under severe persecution.
“When he arrived he was told that the people had seen a vision that a man would come bringing light to them. And so he was able to share with them about the light of the world, Yeshua!”
Avi Snyder, European Director of Jews for Jesus, tells of a time when his colleague Julia asked a young woman called Miriam to read Isaiah 53, written around 700 BC. “Miriam’s eyes literally grew wide as she read from her own Bible the description of the Servant of the Lord killed as an atonement for our sins.”
“Does this sound like anyone you’ve ever heard about?” Julia asked.
“It sounds like Jesus,” she replied. And, after re-reading the passage, she asked, “Why don’t the rabbis believe this?”
“Actually, that’s the wrong question,” Julia said. “The right question is, ‘why don’t you believe this?’”
Miriam thought for another moment, then said, “I do.”
Just a few chapters later, Isaiah wrote, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (Isaiah 60.1–3)
Jesus himself celebrated Hanukkah – also referred to as the Festival of Dedication – and it was there that he came under fierce attack from the Jewish religious leaders. As they debated with him about his identity, they threatened to stone him for blasphemy because he claimed to be the Son of God. (John 10.22–42)
The encouraging thing about this account is that Jesus subsequently returned across the Jordan to where his cousin John had earlier been baptizing, and many followed him there and came to believe in him.
Today we rejoice that more and more Israelis, along with Jews across the diaspora, are putting their trust in Yeshua who, at Christmas, came to dwell (or tabernacle) among us (John 1.14).
Have a happy Hanukkah and a blessed Christmas!
Charles Gardner is author of Israel the Chosen, available from Amazon, and Peace in Jerusalem, available from olivepresspublisher.com