Hanukkah an 'evangelism opportunity'

NASHVILLE (BP) -- Each holiday season Ric Worshill looks forward to the celebration that provides him with a natural opportunity to tell his friends and family that Jesus is the light of the world.

But it's not Christmas.

As a Messianic Jew (a Jew who follows Jesus as the Messiah), Worshill celebrates Hanukkah annually for eight days to commemorate the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem after the Jewish people won independence from foreign rulers some 150 years before the birth of Christ -- during the period between the Old and New Testaments. According to Jewish tradition, the military victory and subsequent rededication were accompanied by a one-day supply of ceremonial oil miraculously providing light for eight days in the temple lampstand -- which reminds Worshill and other Messianic believers that Jesus is the light of the world.

Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of the month of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, which is Dec. 16 this year. In other years Hanukkah can begin anywhere from late November to late December.

Hanukkah "is a great evangelism opportunity," Worshill, president of the Southern Baptist Messianic Fellowship, told Baptist Press. "I use it quite often. Some of the verses I use for evangelism are about light."

Among those verses are the account of God creating light in Genesis, Old Testament references to God as light and Jesus' claim to be the light of the world in John 8. Using these and other passages, Worshill explains that Jesus is the divine Savior of humanity. At least six Jewish people have received Jesus as their Lord and Savior at Hanukkah through Worshill's witness, he said.

The history of Hanukkah

In 722 B.C., Assyria conquered the northern Jewish kingdom of Israel. About 150 years later, the southern kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians and the Jewish people found themselves entirely under foreign rule. Later the Persians defeated the Babylonians, and in turn the Greeks defeated the Persians. But the Jews did not regain their independence.

From about 320-198 B.C., factions within the Greek Empire waged war for control of the Jewish homeland and it fell to a group known as the Seleucid Dynasty, whose ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes treated the Jews brutally. He outlawed the Hebrew Scriptures, forbade Jewish religious practices and converted the temple in Jerusalem into a center for pagan worship, according to the website BibleMesh.com.

But in 167 B.C. a Jewish priest named Mattathias Maccabaeus launched a guerilla revolt against the Seleucids along with his sons. Though Mattathias died before the revolt ended, his sons established an independent Jewish state in 142 B.C. and rededicated the temple to Yahweh, the God of Israel.

"According to tradition, when Jewish military leaders entered their temple to reclaim it, they relit the lampstand in the temple -- but they found only a single jar of oil that hadn't been defiled, only enough oil to last a single day," said Timothy Paul Jones, a Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor whose forthcoming book and video series "How We Got the Bible Made Easy" includes material on Jewish history between the Old and New Testaments.

"It would take eight days to obtain the oil they needed to keep the fire burning, but -- again, according to tradition -- the lampstand remained lit all eight days, even though there had only been enough oil to burn for one day. The word 'Hanukkah' derives from a Hebrew verb that means 'celebrate,'" Jones told BP in email comments.

Jewish independence ended in 63 B.C., when the Romans conquered Palestine and began using it as a base to expand their empire into Asia. The Romans continued to rule Palestine throughout the New Testament period.

Some of the earliest sources of information about Hanukkah are the books of the Maccabees, which are included in a collection of writings regarded as Scripture by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believers but not Protestants or Jews.

The books of the Maccabees "never mention the tradition of the lamp burning for eight days," Jones, Southern's Gheens Professor of Christian Family Ministry, said. "The purification of the temple under Judah Macabee [one of Mattathias' sons] is described in 1 Maccabees 4. According to this text, Judah and his men found the temple profaned and the courtyard covered in weeds.

"They removed stones that had been defiled by pagan sacrifices and replaced them with unhewn stones, made new utensils and lit the lampstand (1 Maccabees 4:36-51). This chapter in Macabees describes an eight-day dedicatory celebration in which the lampstand was lit, but there's no mention of the lampstand burning for eight days on a single jar of oil," Jones said.

Hanukkah is also mentioned by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus and even in the New Testament, where Jesus celebrated it in John 10:22-23 under the name "the feast of dedication." The Babylonian Talmud, a collection of Jewish laws and traditions compiled from A.D. 200-500, is the first written source to mention the eight-day oil miracle.

Worshill is confident that the oil miracle is historical.

If the Maccabees "were willing to go to such an extent and have so many of their fellow Jews die in the battles to try and take back the temple and Judah for the Jewish people and then worship God and praise Him, I'm sure God would be willing to create a miracle just for them," Worshill said.

Hanukkah's importance

Christians should know about the Jewish documents describing Hanukkah because they provide context for understanding the Bible, Jones said.

"Christians should view intertestamental texts in the same way that we view other Ancient Near Eastern or Roman texts that describe the historical contexts of the Old and New Testaments: these texts are errant writings which may help us to understand the inerrant Scriptures by describing the historical context in which God inspired His Word," Jones said.

Knowing about Hanukkah is also important because it can open doors to share the message of Jesus with Jewish friends, Jones said.

"Paul placed a priority on the proclamation of the Gospel to Jewish people (Romans 1:16), and we have been adopted into a family in which our elder brother Jesus was born a Jew and followed every instruction that God gave to the children of Israel (Galatians 4:4-7; Hebrews 2:11). Understanding festivals like Hanukkah can equip us to proclaim the Gospel to our Jewish neighbors with intelligence and sensitivity," Jones said.

Worshill agrees. In fact, one of his most memorable Hanukkahs involved leading a distant cousin to faith in Christ.

Worshill remembers telling his cousin, "Hanukkah is an amazing prophecy. It's an amazing story of how God is going to light the temple in the future. And it's not going to be the temple in Jerusalem. It's going to be the temple in heaven."

Then Worshill told his cousin about Christ and judgment and challenged him based on Deuteronomy 30:19, "You have a choice today. Choose life. Choose Christ."

The cousin stormed away angry but visited Worshill at work a couple of days later. Crying, the relative said, "I choose life."

Hanukkah "is about praising the Lord," Worshill said. "The sad part is most Jewish people have no clue that's what it's about."

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service.
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