Hanukkah and the Mystery of Lawlessness

By Dr. Jürgen Bühler, ICEJ President

Every year during the months of November and December, the Jewish world celebrates the festival of Hanukkah. It starts Kislev 24 on the Jewish calendar and continues for eight days. This year, Hanukkah begins the evening of Sunday, December 18 and ends on the evening of Monday, December 26. It’s a holiday that remembers the historical events that took place in 167 BC during the time when Israel was under Syrian-Greek rule and the Jewish people were suffering severe political and religious persecution.

The Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes intended to de-Judaize the people of Israel. He forbid the study of Torah (books of Moses) and many biblical practices, such as circumcision. He also desecrated the temple in Jerusalem by sacrificing pigs. It is considered one of the darkest hours for the people of God.

Until finally, Israel was delivered through a bold leader, Judas Maccabeus. The great miracle celebrated during Hanukkah is that a tiny portion of remaining oil for the temple’s menorah amazingly lasted for eight days, enough time to ritually produce a new supply of pure olive oil.

Hanukkah is not a “feast of the Lord” explicitly commanded by God in Scripture, as the events took place some 200 years after the last book of the Tanach (Old Testament) was written. Yet it still can be referred to as a biblical feast as the events surrounding Hanukkah were precisely prophesied by the prophet Daniel some 500 years before they happened (see Daniel 8 and 11). And we read that Jesus came to Jerusalem to mark Hanukkah, also known as the “Feast of Dedication” (John 10:22).

Antiochus Epiphanes: A Prototype

While this Jewish festival is generally not celebrated by Christians, Hanukkah still carries much significance for the church, as it teaches us about the prophetic. It presents the Syrian-Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes as a prototype of the future antichrist. Daniel 11 begins by accurately describing the flow of history, which led to the events around Hanukkah and then moves seamlessly into a more distant prophecy about a future villain—the antichrist. While today not much is preached about the antichrist, the Bible refers to him frequently (see Daniel 7–8, 11–12; 2 Thessalonians 2; 1 John 2, 4; Revelation 13, 17).

The Bible describes him as the main earthly opponent to the people of God (Israel and the church) in the immediate years before the return of Christ. It needs to be underlined, however, that the antichrist is neither a challenge nor a threat to God. Jesus, upon His arrival, will effortlessly deal with him by the mere “breath of his mouth” (2 Thessalonians 2:8). But he will represent a significant challenge to the people of God by “making war with the saints” (Daniel 7:21).

The Bible refers to the antichrist several ways. Paul calls him “the man of lawlessness,” the “son of destruction,” and “the lawless one” (2 Thessalonians 2:1ff). Jesus refers to him as “another one who will come,” while John calls him the “Antichrist” (1 John 2:18ff) and “the Beast” (Revelation 13). Daniel refers to him as a king (Daniel 11) and cryptically as “a horn with eyes of a man and a mouth to speak great things” (Daniel 7:8, 11, 20–21).

It is important to understand this embodiment of evil, as his coming is not a mere possibility but an absolute certainty. Paul saw it as a prerequisite to the return of Jesus (2 Thessalonians 2:3) and therefore, preached and wrote about it (2 Thessalonians 2:5). In addition, according to both Paul and John, the antichrist’s appearance is not just a singular event somewhere in the distant future; they saw the principles and spiritual force of the antichrist operating in their day.

I strongly believe it is also very much in operation in our day. John calls this dark force the “spirit of the Antichrist,” which is “already in the world” (1 John 4:3), and Paul refers to it as the “mystery of lawlessness” that is “already at work” (2 Thessalonians 2:7).

How the Hanukkah Story Started

Coming back to our Hanukkah story, we must ask ourselves: How did it all start back then, when Antiochus Epiphanes rose up and viscously attacked and deceived the people of God? How did the thought enter his mind to “act against the holy covenant” and to make war with the saints?

The Apocryphal book of Maccabees gives us an answer. It indicates that the thought to do so was not triggered by his own mind as a preconceived vicious plan to go against the Jews, but it originated within the people of God. In the book of First Maccabees, we read that at the same time Antiochus came to power, “lawless men arose in Israel and seduced many with their plea, ‘Come, let us make a covenant with the gentiles around us, because ever since we have kept ourselves separated from them we have suffered many evils’” (1 Maccabees 1:11). In other words, years before Antiochus ever came to Israel, the “spirit of lawlessness” was operating among the people of God, when some thought that adopting gentile practices was better than strict adherence to God’s Law.
Sadly, this appeal was widely received; a delegation even took the initiative to visit King Antiochus, requesting his approval for their apostate aspirations. Consequently, Jerusalem became a center of Greek learning and culture in the region, and a gymnasium was built there—the hallmark of Greek civilization. All activities in these gymnasiums were carried out completely nude, and soon local performers, ashamed to be identified as Jews, tried by various means to “undo” their circumcision.

In the meantime, Antiochus strengthened his kingdom and conquered neighboring Egypt. On the way back to Greece, he passed through Jerusalem, and “with arrogance he went into the sanctuary. He took the gold altar, the lampstand for the light, and all its equipment.” From then on, Greek culture was not only encouraged but became the only allowed option. Study of Torah, prayer, and circumcision were banned under penalty of death, and the temple was completely desecrated.

The door that “lawless men in Israel” opened to liberalism and open-mindedness, to new cultures and more modern practices, led not just to more modern and “culturally relevant” expressions of faith, but it opened the floodgates to the destruction of the spiritual life of Israel.
It is no surprise that Paul saw a similar sequence of events occurring in the last days. “The day of the Lord,” Paul writes, will not come “unless the rebellion comes first” followed by the “arrival of the man of lawlessness.” He sees a falling away (Greek: apostasia), which precedes the coming of the antichrist (2 Thessalonians 2:3ff).

How, Then, Shall We Live?

Paul also notes that “the mystery of lawlessness” is at work already. Both Paul and Jesus warn us about the last days, that it will not be legalism or overly strict obedience to the Word of God that will be the main threat but that “lawlessness will increase” to such a degree that people will fall away from their faith.

The story of Hanukkah should be a stern warning to all of us to strengthen our faith and take our stand amid the dark times we live in. But how then shall we live as everything around us seems headed for uncertainty and chaos?
The Word of God gives us hope! The prophet Daniel, who himself foresaw the difficult time of antichrist, also saw that amid these challenges there will be those “who know their God” (Daniel 11:32). He sees these people as not defeated and broken but as the New King James Version says, ones who will “carry out great exploits” (Daniel 11:32). It will be a time of great darkness, but Daniel also foresees that “those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament,” and “turn many to righteousness like the stars” (Daniel 12:3). Also, the prophet Zechariah sees an overcoming army of “sons of Zion” who will challenge the “sons of Greece” (see Zechariah 9:13).

The battle we are engaged in, unlike at the time of Maccabees, is not against flesh and blood but a spiritual battle against “principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). It is a time to fasten on our spiritual armor so “that you may be able to stand in the evil day” (v. 13).

Rededicate Your Life

The book of Maccabees tells us that when Antiochus came to Jerusalem, his main targets were threefold: He desecrated the altar, the menorah (lampstand), and the showbread table in the temple. Here’s what we can learn today from Antiochus’ act of trying to desecrate these “pillars”:

  1. The menorah speaks about the prophetic testimony of the church in dark times. Let us not compromise our confession but stand firm on God’s Word.
  2. The oil for the menorah’s light is the Holy Spirit, which God promises to give freely to those who seek Him.
  3. The table of showbread speaks about our fellowship and communion with God and with our fellow brothers and sisters. The book of Hebrews encourages us to not “forsake the assembly, as is the habit of some” (Hebrews 10:25).
  4. The altar is our prayer life. Both Daniel and Revelation speak about the man of lawlessness targeting the “regular sacrifice.” I believe this speaks of the future temple but also how Satan is trying to kill your regular fellowship with Jesus now. The most powerful antidote for the times we are living in is to strengthen our “prayer muscles.” I encourage you to use this time of shaking to strengthen feeble knees and rediscover the power of prayer for yourself. Consider starting the new year in prayer with our Global Prayer Gathering or our Rosh Chodesh prayer vigil.

Hanukkah is all about the rededication of these pillars in our spiritual lives. Be encouraged to enter the new year with great resolve to stand in faith during these challenging times we live in.

Give a gift of love and comfort to a family in need over the holidays.