I do not hesitate to say, or apologize for saying, that our Christian heritage is in Judaism. If you dig down into our foundations deeply enough, you discover the Jew. That is not only a spiritual truth, but also a historical fact. Jesus was a Jew—100%, full-blooded, full-fledged Hebrew. This was in God’s plan. That is why He called Abraham and, through him and his wife Sarah, established the Jewish nation. Through this Jewish bloodline would come the promised Messiah. No other nation or ethnic people on earth at that time were worthy of that honor. It had to be a brand new people living and worshiping under the law of Jehovah God.
From that point, everything should have run smoothly, but it didn’t. Israel had her problems with sin and idolatry; plus she had her national enemies who also were responsible in part for her sins. You see, Satan did not retire when God cast him out of Heaven. He knew something big lay up ahead, all of which would be to the glory of God. So he never missed an opportunity to try sidetracking every move he thought was God’s. And, without question, his special target throughout the Old Testament era was the Jewish people — the children of Israel. He didn’t want to merely harass them or make them suffer. He wanted desperately to annihilate them—wipe them off the face of the earth. He is still trying to do that today.
And that brings us to a special time in history when Satan almost succeeded. It was in the period between the Testaments, specifically 168 BC. Something happened that culminated into a celebration known as Hanukkah, an 8-day long holiday celebrated by the Jews to this day. And because of Hanukkah we have Christmas. And if there had never been a Hanukkah, there would be no Christmas!
In the period I referred to between the Testaments, the children of Israel were under the iron rule of the Syrian king named Antiochus. Not only did Antiochus subject the Jews to a life of suffering, but he was also openly determined to destroy the very foundation and unique identity of Judaism. He prevented the Jews from ever using the Temple, but he didn’t stop there. He forced them to abandon every phase of their religion. He banned Sabbath, circumcisions, all worship of Jehovah God, and all traditions that dated back to Moses. He destroyed all of the writings of the scribes that he could locate. He erected idols all over the Temple, including in the Holy of Holies. Then as the ultimate act of desecration of God’s temple, he sacrificed a pig on the altar of God.
The Jews were totally defeated and demoralized. This was one unique time in Jewish history when the enemy came within a fraction of destroying all traces of a recognizable Jewish culture. And any chance for a promised Messiah to be born into Judaism would have vanished.
But in 168 BC, at the height of the reign of Antiochus, there was an aged Jewish priest named Mattathias who one day struck down and killed one of Antiochus’ commissioners and an apostate Jew, who were in the process of offering up heathen sacrifices in the temple. Then he leveled the altar and escaped with his five sons into the wilderness. He organized a guerrilla band to oppose Antiochus. Two of his sons were killed in the process, and Mattathias died shortly thereafter.
But the eldest son, Judas, took over. Judas and his guerrilla band defeated every military unit Antiochus sent against them. During this time Judas won the name “Macabbee,” which means “the hammerer.” Within three years, Judas Maccabee and his band of Jewish guerrillas miraculously recaptured the city of Jerusalem and the temple.
They promptly set about destroying every semblance of heathen presence. They thoroughly cleansed the temple and rededicated it to Jehovah God and to the worship of Him alone.
The temple was rededicated on the 25th day of the Jewish month of “Kislev,” which corresponds exactly to our month of December. The name Hanukkah means “dedication.” The celebration is also referred to as “The Feast of Dedication,” and the “Festival of Lights.” The common Hebrew phrase connected with Hanukkah is “Nes Gadoy Haya Sham,” which means: “A great miracle happened here.” Truly, it was a great miracle: Judaism was saved from oblivion.
In actual fact, there are two miracles that link Hanukkah and Christmas, and understanding them will raise your joyful appreciation of both. First, there was the preservation of the Jewish people. Had Antiochus been successful, the Jews and Judaism would have gone the route of all the other nations that are today nothing more than archeological history. (e.g. Philistines, Amalakites, etc.) There would not have been a chosen nation for Christ to be born into. So whenever you are tempted to doubt God’s saving power, remember Hanukkah and His loving power for the Maccabees: all odds against them, yet they miraculously prevailed. He is the same God, who today delivers His people, Jew and Gentile.
The second miracle of Hanukkah is the miracle of lights. Antiochus and his thugs had extinguished the Seven-branch Menorah that was to burn in the temple continuously. The victorious Jews searched for oil to rekindle this sacred flame. They found only enough for one day, and it would take eight days to get more. In their excitement to rekindle the flame, they didn’t wait. They lit it with only one day’s supply of oil. Miraculously it burned continually for eight days. This is why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight full days, and why a nine branch candelabra is used in the celebration. The “Shamash,” or servant candle is lit first; then it lights all the other candles one at a time each night for the eight nights. On the eighth night the full candelabra is brilliantly aglow.
John 10 tells us that Jesus went up to the temple at the Feast of Dedication. Isn’t it appropriate that He would choose that moment to declare, “I am the light of the world. He that follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.”? (John 8:12.)
Like the “Shamash,” the Servant Candle (Jesus) lights our way and sends His Holy Spirit to ignite us, to fire us up, so we can shine His light into a dark world.
So the miracle of preservation made Christmas possible, and the miracle of light reminds us of the prophet’s voice: “He shall be a light unto the Gentiles … and His salvation will reach to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6).
Finally, there is the common theme that links Hanukkah and Christmas, and it is that of “God with us – Immanuel.” There is a traditional Hanukkah hymn that reads like this: “Rock of ages, let our song praise thy saving power; thou amidst the raging foe, were our sheltering tower; furious they assailed us; by thy arm you availed us; and thy word broke their sword when our own strength failed us!”
God has promised to be with us, His people, in every endeavor of our lives, and this promise was forever sealed in the Name the prophets chose to call Messiah. “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall call His name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14).
Jesus was born to die and then rise up victoriously. Born to light our way and make us lights. Born to be worshiped and adored by Jews and Gentiles alike. He is the Hope of Hanukkah and the Christ of Christmas.
These two holidays share their significance in the person of Y’shua, Jesus, our Rock of Ages.
(My special thanks to Chesdovi and to Christian Covenant Fellowship for use of the unique photos.)