With the Jewish celebration of Chanukkah just around the corner, I thought it might be worthwhile to briefly consider that portion of the history of God’s people, and determine if there is anything we can learn from the villian and (small “a”) antichrist in the Channukah story, Antiochus Epiphanes (215 BC-164 BC), ruler of the Seleucid empire.
Antiochus was a sinister schemer (Daniel 8:23), a deceitful man, and quite crafty in the way he attempted to overthrow the worship of the living God. First, he did it through cultural influence. He wanted his empire to have one culture and one religion that he would be at the center of.
Almost every antichrist (1 John 2:18) has attempted to do that; Stalin with his program of Russianization and the spread of Communism, Napoleon who attempted to bring the philosophy of the French Revolution to every state in Europe, Hitler with his Pagan vision of an empire of Aryan Nordic peoples, Muhammad with his vision of one world-wide Dar-El-Islam. Now, what were these antichrists doing? They were creating a counterfeit kingdom of God, where instead of Christ at the center, these men who styled themselves as gods were at the center. That’s important to note about the devil – the best he can do is create a counterfeit by perverting that which is true and the good, he can create nothing.
But Israel and the Jewish people stood in the way of Antiochus’ counterfeit kingdom of god. So his aim was to corrupt the culture of the people of God, to Hellenize them, to replace a Jewish culture based on the teaching of the Bible with a Greek culture, based on humanism and Greek religion.
Antiochus initially spread Hellenism by using Hellenized Jews, men who had forgotten the God of their fathers and were eager to advance in the brave new world that Antiochus was attempting to build. Through those men, he introduced Greek culture, Greek thinking, he even mandated Greek sports, and he deliberately targeted the young. Antiochus knew that if he could train up a few generations of Hellenized Jews he could break the chain whereby the faith is transmitted from parent to child and bring Israel to that terrible point where she forgot her God and his Word once again. But this campaign was not entirely successful, he found he could only go so far, you can corrupt those who are externally in the church, but he found to his profound consternation that the Lord preserves His elect, those who are genuinely converted and “love the Lord their God with all their heart, with all their soul, and with all their strength.” (Deut. 6:5, Mark 12:30)
Because of this resistance to his wicked agenda, Antiochus gradually became more repressive, he instituted the death penalty for circumcising children which applied to both the mother and the child. The Scriptures were banned, the Sabbath was eliminated, Hebrew was replaced with Koine Greek, and the only religion that was acceptable was a Hellenized corrupt version of Jewish religion. He even erected a Statue of Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Troops went from village to village enforcing these edicts, and many tens of thousands of Jews who resisted Hellenization died during this period, others gave in. Finally in 167 BC Antiochus’ soldiers came to a town called Modein North of Jerusalem in which an old Priest by the name of Matthias dwelt with his sons, Matthias was well respected and so they tried to get him to sacrifice the pig to Zeus himself. He refused to do so, reportedly saying – “Even if every nation obeys [the King], each forsaking its ancestral religion to conform to his decrees, I, my sons and my brothers will still follow the covenant of our ancestors. May Heaven preserve us from forsaking the Law and its observances. As for the king’s orders, we will not follow them: we shall not swerve from our own religion either to right or to left.” (1 Maccabees 2:19-22)
As a Levite stepped forward to take his place, Matthias killed the apostate Jew and then the king’s representative, and then he and his sons took to the hills to begin an amazingly successful guerilla war against the forces of Antiochus’s generals. Matthias died and was succeeded by one of his sons – Judah Maccabee (Judah the Hammer.) He and His rebels were always outnumbered and ill-equipped, but they won battle after battle, and eventually in 164 BC Judah was able to enter the Holy City and cleanse and rededicate the Temple, exactly as the prophet Daniel had prophesied down to the day. When they rededicated the temple, they had only enough holy oil for the Candelabrum for one day. They sent for more, but that one day’s supply lasted for eight days until the fresh oil arrived. That event is what the Jews still celebrate as “Chanukkah” the festival of lights or festival of rededication to this day, lighting a candle on the Menorah for each of the eight days the oil lasted.
One year later, in keeping with the prophecy of Daniel 8:25 – “He shall be broken without human means” – Antiochus died through a mysterious disease returning from Persia in 163 BC. Just as was the case with Alexander the Great, God reached out and snapped him like a dry twig.
So What Can God’s People Learn From the Example of Antiochus?
First, that the spirit of antichrist is not stupid, it is quite shrewd - it begins not with open warfare on the people of God, but with the corruption of the society and the church, and the degree to which men embrace that corruption is the degree to which they are applauded by the culture. The same spirit of antichrist at work in our own culture is working in exactly the same way. Think about the following,
Antiochus Banned the Scriptures from Society: We live in a time when the Bible and the teaching of it is virtually banned in the public square, We will defend any obscenity under the first amendment, but a high school valedictorian better not mention Jesus or what He taught in her speech or the plug gets pulled.
Antiochus Eliminated the Sabbath: today we are watching the Lord’s Day disappear from public recognition, and just as many of the priests in Antiochus’ day colloborated in the subversion of Jewish culture, in our day many ministers are helping in the process of eliminating the Lord’s day.
Antiochus used sports in particular to aid in the process of erasing the Sabbath. By his edict, the Sabbath became a day for wrestling and hurling the discus. Antichrists have long employed sports for that purpose.
In 1633 Charles I, in order to fight against the growing Puritan Revival and Reformation in England, issued his Declaration of Sports stating that various sports and dances and feasts were all acceptable Sunday recreations. He commanded that it be read by the ministers in every church, and threatened that if they did not they would be removed from their positions, one Puritan minister at the end of the service held up the declaration and said “The King commands that I must read this pronouncement, but he does not command that you must hear it” so he dismissed the people and read the kings declaration to an empty church.
Today we not only have the big obvious Lord’s Day Sport of Football, we are seeing the profusion of youth leagues that play on Sunday and so on.
Antiochus Corrupted the Religion of the Jews and replaced it with a Hellenized abomination. Today Christianity is being overwhelmed by modernity. The Liberal church simply parrots whatever the liberal wing of the culture says. But as evangelicals we are being eaten up ourselves by the politicization of the church, the cultural corruption of our worship, and the loss of our theology. In our religion, God is getting smaller and smaller, and man is getting bigger and bigger. Increasingly our worship rather than being directed towards God is all about us.
Second, remember that, as the phrase implies, these first steps are only the beginning of the campaign – I’m sure the Jews looking at the implementation of these things must have said, “this is as bad as it gets, it can’t get worse than this!”
It has always been the case that Christians have looked around at the state of their society and concluded that the end must come soon. Things are just too bad, society is too lawless, persecution too severe, things cannot possibly get worse, Christ must come back now. For instance, reflecting on the state of affairs in his own time, Martin Luther wrote in 1538, “The world cannot stand long, perhaps a hundred years at the outside.”
It got worse for the Jews during the reign of Antiochus, and it will get worse for us, before it will get better.
So what are God’s people to do?
1) Resist this first series of steps – This is the time when the chaff begins to get swept away. The people who love the world more than Christ, the men whose true heart Idol is sports and not God are lost now. This is the time when Paul’s warning to Timothy, “they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Tim. 4:3-4) proves to be true yet again. Compromise at this point inevitably proves fatal and only leads to an eventual shipwreck of the faith.
Keep in mind though, that the only ones who will resist will those who love Christ more than the world, therefore begin by taking to heart the apostle John’s command: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life — is not of the Father but is of the world.” (1 John 2:15-16)
2) Know that it will get worse, and prepare for that – The spirit of antichrist that is already abroad in the world will get worse, if he can’t break the church by assimilation he will attack them directly, even to the point that worship is driven underground. We in the USA might scoff at the idea that that could ever happen here, but keep in mind that it has happened under Antiochus and Rome and Islam and the Stuart monarchy, and Communism, and even today Christians in many nations must gather in secret in order to worship. We should follow the example of these persecuted brethren and not forsake the assembling of ourselves together no matter what the cost. We must be willing to go on meeting, baptizing, evangelizing even to the point of death. If we think we cannot, remember the words that Paul wrote from prison in Phil. 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
3) Remember always, that it is darkest before dawn – The power of Antiochus seemed unstoppable, but the same God who raises up kings, swept him out of the way with the back of his hand. So Christian, remain true to your first love, and know that when it seems darkest, the Son is about to rise upon you with healing in His wings, He shall triumph, and you will be more than conquerors in that day through Him who loved us.