Shabbat Shalom, today is the 6th day of Chanukah and Lord willing I would like us to consider the following question: Who are we dedicated to? In the face of persecution and pressure the full story of Chanukah serves as a lesson, encouragement, and warning on the need to be dedicated to the Lord.
We come to Chanukah this year in very dark times. Every day we hear of some new atrocity being carried out in the name of a false god or a false philosophy. In our country we have many people who preach tolerance, but are intolerantly encouraging those who are dedicated to the Lord and His Divinely Inspired Word to compromise or abandon their beliefs. In many other countries around the world people are losing their reputations, their jobs, and even their lives for having faith in Messiah Yeshua. There is considerable pressure on Jewish and Gentile Believers in Yeshua to conform ourselves, not to the image of God, but to the mindlessly sinful culture we are surrounded in. I could go on and rattle off a list of a dozen examples but I believe most of us experience this reality daily.
This tug of war between being dedicated to the Lord or being dedicated to culture and ultimately ourselves is nothing new. It has existed since the fall of man, but the story of Chanukah is an encouragement and challenge to continue being dedicated or even rededicate ourselves to the Lord.
Now for those of you who are not familiar with Chanukah, it can be summarized like many Jewish holidays; someone tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat. This summary is accurate but also very incomplete. The truth is even most Jewish people don’t spend much time considering the full story of Chanukah.
The typical story of Chanukah which I was taught in Hebrew school is how the wicked king and general, Antiochus Epiphanies (whose name means “God Manifest”, which tells you something about how he viewed himself), went into Israel and forced our people to give up faith in the Lord to worship Greek gods. Anyone who practiced anything to do with Judaism was tortured and killed. The height of his sin was the erection of a statue of Zeus in the Temple of the Lord, and then forcing the people to worship and offer sacrifices to it. Conveniently the statue had his face and so everyone was really forced to worship this man with delusions of deity.
In response to the murder and paganism, Judah Maccabee, his brothers, and a small remnant of people who were still loyal to the Lord began a war against Antiochus. With Adonai’s help they drove him from the land of Israel, and rededicated the Temple to the Lord. But there was one major problem; there was only enough oil to last one day to relight the fire that burned eternally in the Temple. Even though the oil should have lasted for just a day, a miracle occurred and it lasted eight days until more oil could be produced. So the holiday of Chanukah is celebrated as the festival of lights and we commemorate this holiday with our Menorahs and gift giving.
The problem with this story I learned in Hebrew School, and that you also may have heard, is that the miracle of the oil most likely never happened. 1 and 2 Maccabees, which record the story of Chanukah, make no mention of this miracle; it was most likely invented later by the rabbis. The books of 1 and 2 Maccabees are not divinely inspired but are considered historically accurate and serve to tell us the true meaning of Chanukah. The word Chanukah means dedication, and has to do with the rededication of the Temple and the restoration of true worship to the Land of Israel.
Part of the story that is not usually mentioned is that before Antiochus entered the land of Israel our people had already turned themselves over to Greek thought and paganism. Many people, especially in the city of Jerusalem, had turned away from God’s covenants to such a degree that they even tried to reverse their circumcisions. Even the priesthood was not immune to this corruption with several High Priests of Israel during this time having purchased their position with bribery to Antiochus. From the priesthood to the people, the majority had begun to become dedicated to the prevailing ideas of the day and had turned away from the Lord.
Despite the rampant sin of our people in 1 and 2 Maccabees we have three powerful examples of what it means to be dedicated to the Lord.
The first example is the father of Judah Maccabee, Mattathias. 1 Maccabees 2 records the faithfulness and dedication of this Kohen. When Antiochus’s officials came to the town where he lived they instructed the people to offer sacrifices to pagan gods. They knew Mattathias was a respected man and offered him power and riches to turn away from Adonai and become dedicated to Antiochus. The officials pointed out that all the gentiles in the Land, all the people of Judea, and all that were left in Jerusalem had become dedicated to Antiochus and his pagan gods and offered sacrifices already.
But Mattathias was not swayed by this pressure and proudly proclaimed that no matter how many of our people had turned away from God, with the Lord’s help he and his family would not offer these sacrifices. While Mattathias was speaking, another person, perhaps tempted by the offers made to him, attempted to be the first to offer sacrifices. When Mattathias saw this he was overcome with righteous anger and killed the man and the officials. He then went from town to town gathering an army to fight back against Antiochus’s officials and those of our people who had sided with them.
A time later after several battles Mattathias was on his deathbed and called his sons to him. He reminded them of our ancestors, Abraham, Joseph, Phinehas, Elijah, Daniel, and others, to remember their examples of being dedicated and faithful to the Lord. He then told his sons the point of reciting their history:
Take each of these ancestors of ours as an example, and you will realize that no one who puts his trust in the Lord will ever lack strength. Don’t be afraid of the threats of a wicked man. Remember that he will die and all his splendor will end with worms feeding on his decaying body. Today he may be highly honored, but tomorrow he will disappear; his body will return to the earth and his scheming will come to an end.
The life of this man of God challenges us to examine our own and consider who we have dedicated ourselves to. Mattathias knew that no matter how difficult our present circumstances are, no matter how deep the persecution or pressure, those who are faithful to the Lord will endure, and those who are not, no matter how powerful they seem, will all pass away.
The second example of dedication to the Lord is found in 2 Maccabees 6 with Eleazar, a scholar of the Law. Eleazar was an elderly and highly respected scholar who was 90 years old. Just like Mattathias he was told to reject the Lord and His commandments by eating sacrificed pork as a sign of his dedication to Antiochus and paganism. But Eleazar refused to reject Adonai and went willingly to be tortured for his disobedience. The people who were in charge of the sacrifice had been friends of Eleazar for many years and told him that they would smuggle in kosher meat for him to eat instead of the sacrificed pork. This would allow him to pretend to reject the Lord publically and keep his life. They felt that this was a good plan and Eleazar would have to be crazy not to accept it. But consider Eleazar’s response to their scheme:
But Eleazar made a decision worthy of his gray hair and advanced age. All his life he had lived in perfect obedience to God’s holy laws, so he replied, “Kill me, here and now. Such deception is not worthy of a man of my years. Many young people would think that I had denied my faith after I was ninety years old. If I pretended to eat this meat, just to live a little while longer, it would bring shame and disgrace on me and lead many young people astray.
For the present I might be able to escape what you could do to me, but whether I live or die, I cannot escape Almighty God. If I die bravely now, it will show that I deserved my long life. It will also set a good example of the way young people should be willing and glad to die for our sacred and respected laws.”
When I first read the words of Eleazar I found them deeply moving. Here was a man who knew that despite what might happen in this life, that he would be rewarded by Adonai for his dedication to Him. The men who claimed to be his friends were also moved by Eleazar’s words, but sadly not in the same way. After hearing this powerful testimony the men who moments before had treated him kindly began to beat him and truly believed that he was speaking like someone out of their mind. They could not understand why Eleazar would not simply abandon the Lord and save his life. They had become so deeply entrenched in their new beliefs that Eleazar’s dedication was considered madness. So it is today that many of us who have put our trust in the Lord are considered crazy and mad by our friends, family and society. But we are in good company with Eleazar. These men then beat poor Eleazar to death but he did not waiver in his commitment to Adonai.
The final example of dedication to the Lord that I would like to share with you today is in 2 Maccabees 7. This is a testimony not from a priest or a scribe, but a mother and her seven sons. This family was arrested for refusing to worship pagan gods and even after being beaten still refused to listen to Antiochus. This made him so angry that he devised tortures of incredible cruelty for the family. One by one each son was tortured and killed, refusing to abandon God and telling Antiochus that while they would have eternal life there would be nothing but punishment for him.
As each son confessed the greatness of God and their belief in the resurrection Antiochus grew more amazed and angry. Their mother spoke to them in Hebrew encouraging them to remain faithful to God, that He was the one who had created them insider her and that He was the Great Creator of all things. Antiochus was convinced that she was mocking him in Hebrew and decided to punish her by trying his hardest to have the final son abandon God.
He promised the boy wealth and power, to give him a powerful position if only he would eat the meat sacrificed to the idols. The boy would not listen and so Antiochus tried to persuade his mother to convince him to accept the offer. The boy’s mother pretended to do so but actually in Hebrew further encouraged her son to remain faithful to the Lord and he went willingly to his death and finally she died as well.
The dedication of this family, Eleazar, and Mattathias stands as powerful encouragements and examples of authentic dedication to the Lord. Each of them had ample opportunity and temptation to turn away from God, to embrace the encroaching culture of the day, but each of them chose God over riches, power, and even their lives. We do not know what tomorrow will bring and none of us can say for certain what persecution our generation will face in the future, but regardless of circumstances we can look to the examples of these individuals, and all of God’s people who stand firm in the face of pressure and persecution.
It is very easy for us to compromise ourselves in the face of pressure but with the Lord’s help we can remain dedicated to Him as well. For some the story of Chanukah is an encouragement to continue fighting the good fight, to continue praying, praising, and living our lives as Messiah Yeshua taught us to. For others the story of Channukah is an encouragement to us to become like the Temple, which was rededicated to service for Adonai. Just as the Lord restored the physical Temple for service in Jerusalem, He is more than able to restore us as well. No matter the sins we have committed the Lord calls to us to put our trust in Him, through the Messiah and let Him be the unmovable foundation of our lives.
But there is another lesson to be learned from Channukah, a lesson to all those who refuse to become dedicated to the Lord and refuse to turn away from false philosophies and gods. To all those who are convinced that they are God, that live their lives by a standard of their own creation, who pressure others to abandon the Lord and accept the ruling thoughts of the day, consider the ultimate fate of Antiochus.
Like all those who are dedicated to themselves and persecute God’s people, Antiochus was judged by the Lord. He was stricken with an incredibly painful intestinal disease that tortured him like he tortured so many. Antiochus who declared that he would leave Jerusalem a graveyard of Jews, and who had firmly believed that he was divine, was broken by the Lord and forced to admit Adonai, Hu HaElohim, The Lord, He Is God. He died surrounded not by his armies or officials, but a physically broken man in his own excrement. His fate is the fate of all those who believe that they should live a life of their own creation, and especially those would seek to persecute and pressure the people of God.
On this Feast of Dedication, may the Lord enable us all to run the race that has been set before us and be fully dedicated to Him. May we remember all those who have bravely lived their lives dedicated to Adonai when we face our temptations and persecutions and may we all experience eternal life in the New Jerusalem with Him.