A Hanukkah Message for Christmas

For the first time since 1978, the first evening of Hanukkah coincides with Christmas Eve. And while the two holidays share little between them besides historical and geographical context as well as approximate time of observance, Hanukkah has something to teach us this Christmas season.

The following image, contrasting the scene at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1939 with 2014 caught my attention today (it was posted on Facebook by the Israel Project):

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. In 1939 huge Nazi flags were flown from it. In 2014 a large Hanukah menorah was on display.

The survival of the people of Israel through the centuries is more than an interesting feature of history, it is an expression of God’s creation design through which we best understand the world. And what happened at the first Hanukkah preserved the integrity of God’s design.

Few people are aware that without Hanukkah there would be no Christmas, because the survival of the people of Israel was an essential part of God’s plan to make himself known to the nations of the world. Contrary to popular sentiment, the world was not waiting for a Savior to come. The Bible tells us that prior to Yeshua’s coming, the Gentiles (non-Jews) were “without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12; NIV). The only ones waiting for salvation (which is what the name Yeshua/Jesus means) were the Jews, having been prepared by God through the Hebrew Prophets for centuries. Among the Messiah’s detailed predicted qualifications was that he was to come from a distinctly Jewish family heritage. Therefore, it was absolutely essential that the people of Israel retained a distinct religious and cultural existence at the time of his coming.

The particular threat that had fallen upon Israel in the second century before Yeshua’s coming was intended to destroy Israel’s national identity. The Greco-Syrian emperor Antiochus Epiphanes had sought to consolidate his rule by imposing Greek culture and religion upon the various people groups within his domain. Many Jewish people of that day went along with his insidious plan. The God-ordained distinctive nature of Israel would been erased through forced assimilation if it had not been for the Maccabean uprising, when a relatively small Jewish army successfully fought off their great oppressors and restored the purity of biblical religion to their land. It was the faith of the few that ensured that a distinct Jewish nation was in place in the Land of Israel at the coming of the Messiah about 160 years later.

Nationhood in general, not just with regard to the Jewish people, is not an accident of history, but the outcome of God’s providence. As Paul made clear in Athens, “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26). National distinctions are not the result of humanly defined social constructs, but of God. While racial pride, prejudice, and oppression are the results of sin, national boundaries and differences in culture in and of themselves are not.

Christmas indeed marks the dawning of the extension of the Abrahamic blessing to the nations: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14; KJV). The reality of the one true God, which for the most part was the sole possession of a unique people, would now be shared with all nations, but not unto the dismantling of national distinctions. Rather it was to culminate in a gathering “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9). It is a misnomer that one of the key purposes of the Gospel is to do away with national distinctives. So-called racial blindness and the breaking down of nationality may sound appealing, but it is contrary to God’s purposeful design.

I believe that one of the reasons why the State of Israel is the object of continued distain is that it is considered a nationalistic relic in the face of ever-increasing globalization. While one-world advocates call for the removal of national boundaries, Israel stands apart. It’s not as if Jews have not been open to being absorbed by the rest of the world. On the contrary, whether it was the assimilated Jews of the Maccabean era or of Germany prior to the rise of the Nazis, we have tried to fit in, but God has had other plans.

God indeed desires unity, but his version of it ingeniously takes into account the beautiful international mosaic of diverse peoples. This was brilliantly established by the early Jewish believers when they decided to not require Gentile followers of the Messiah to embrace Jewish culture in order to be full members of the new messianic community. This opened the door for each nation to work out for itself their unique contribution to the vast family of God. Yet tragically, as the church quickly became predominately Gentile, it failed to effectively provide this freedom, beginning with snuffing out its Jewish component by seeing itself as the New (or True) Israel. Much has changed in this area in the last century or so, but there is still a ways to go. This is largely due to the continuation of replacement theology (defined as “the Church is Israel”) among believers as well as false and destructive notions of unity in the world around us.

God-given distinctives are under constant assault today, not only with regard to nationality, but also having to do with sexuality and gender roles. In the name of equality, social engineers, politicians, and not a few religious leaders are seeking to impose sameness. But God didn’t intend a world of sameness, but one of intentional variety. He began his creation by separating light from darkness and brought it to a climax in the distinction of male and female. Peoplehood distinctions followed immediately afterwards.

That which makes you a unique individual rests upon the foundation of true diversity. This is not a diversity of our own making, one that casts off God’s design. We cannot be anything or whatever we want, but we can be all that God wants us to be. The only way for that to happen is to accept and insist upon our God-given distinctives. Because of the Maccabees, this is something we can celebrate this Christmas.

Do You Know What You Are Singing?

Four carolers singing with questions marks and snow

It’s that time of year again when almost everywhere you go you hear Christmas music. Why songs like “Jingle Bells” and “Let It Snow” don’t get airplay all winter long, I don’t know, but some things are just the way they are.

Christmas carols, a subset of Christmas music, are not all created equal. I accept that one’s preferences are their own and often have to do with sentimental associations rooted in childhood. Growing up in a Jewish milieu, I nonetheless enjoyed the sounds of Christmas. But that’s more to do with its general joyous mood rather than anything to do with the content. To me, at that time, “Hark the Herald” and “Rudolph” had more in common with each other than not. They were both happy and festive even though the festive aspects had little to do with me, my family, and our community. But how I loved going to downtown Montreal in December. The decorations, the sounds, and (unless it was my imagination) the unusual general happiness of the crowds and merchants was a delight.

After coming to know the Lord at age 19, my relationship to Christmas carols understandably changed. “Their” songs had now become “my” songs, or at least they were supposed to. No longer simply a cultural expression of holidays and happiness held at arm’s length due to my naturally acquired Jewish apprehension, the content of these age-old songs was now being validated as legitimate expressions of biblical truth in my newly embraced Gentile-dominated faith community.

The theological perspective of the crowd I was first a part of claimed to be strongly biblical. It would take some time for me to realize that simply claiming biblical authenticity doesn’t automatically inoculate anyone from the influence and control of tradition. Ironically, the stronger the claim to biblical accuracy, the greater the tendency to confuse tradition with what is authentically biblical. This becomes more and more difficult to see when biblical concepts have been obscured through redefinition and misapplication over a long period of time.

Such is the case with the great carol “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Few songs, Christmas or otherwise, possess such a high level of biblical referencing. Dating back as perhaps as early as the 5th century, it is most likely derived from “O Antiphons” a series of antiphonies (responsive singing) used during Vespers (evening services) on the last seven days of Advent in the Western Christian tradition.

I get very emotional every time I hear, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” I want to both weep and scream at the same time! I want to cry because it so vividly captures the hope of ancient Israel, longing for Messiah’s coming. As a member of remnant Israel myself, my heart resonates with these well-crafted divine words set to a beautifully haunting melody and it also breaks for my people who continue in alienation from our King:

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
Who mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

On the other hand, I want to scream, because when this song is sung, I am most often among those, who, for the most part, completely skew its meaning.

The four remaining verses of the original version continues in a similar vein, using Old Testament references to pray for Israel’s salvation:

  • That the Rod of Jesse would free Israel from Satan’s control and break the power of death.
  • That the Dayspring would bring joy, dispersing the cloudy gloom of death’s shadow.
  • That the Key of David would secure our access to heaven and end all misery.
  • That (in a verse rarely sung) Adonai (the traditional Jewish reference to God in prayer) who gave the Torah on Mt. Sinai would come to Israel again.

But who is Israel? When you sing this song, who are you singing about?

Historically, “O Antiphons” may have been written for Advent as a retelling of the period of anticipation for Messiah’s coming. The carol then should teleport you back in time to feel the hearts of those such as Anna and Simeon who longed for God’s day of redemption (Luke 2:21-38). But the redemption of whom? Certainly, Anna and Simeon didn’t foresee the full extent of Abrahamic fulfilment of the Gospel – the blessing to the nations that the early followers of Yeshua had to grapple with and eventually implement. To them and other faithful Israelites, Messiah’s coming was primarily for Israel.

Yet how many people around the world singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” see it solely fulfilled in themselves as if the redemption of Israel is equivalent to the Church? Certainly, the nations can relate to concepts expressed in the song, as they too were in a state of darkness in desperate need of Emmanuel’s rescue. But while the fulfilment of God’s ancient promises to Israel are the foundation of salvation for all peoples, the biblical specifics of the anticipatory cry expressed through this song is Israel’s alone. For not only are they the original objects of these promises, the anticipation continues until they are fully realized in them.

But how can the revelation of Emmanuel dawn upon the people to whom these promises were given, when the great majority of his followers today intentionally or unintentionally obscure the meaning of the song by continuing to misappropriate God’s promise’s by claiming to be Israel? Sure, God can do it himself, but he has chosen to bring messianic mercy to Israel through non-Jewish believers (Romans 11:31). The ongoing arrogance of treating the church as a new Israel not only puts a wedge between Abraham’s descendants and their God-given inheritance, it prevents believers of other nationalities from experiencing their unique place in God’s plan and purposes, one of which is to be God’s conduit of restoration to Israel. You can begin to do that this month by singing an old song in a new way – as a prayer for Israel’s redemption.

Review: The Shack

Shack in woods in fallThe movie version of the best-selling book, “The Shack” is due to be released this coming March. Trailers have begun to pop up on Facebook along with excitement from fans and caution from detractors of which I am one. “But it’s just a book,” they say. “It’s just fiction,” they say. And soon it will be: “It’s just a movie.”

Well, we don’t know how the movie will fare, but “just the” book has sold over 20 million copies. I have heard countless times how this work of fiction has transformed lives or helped people understand God in new ways. And this is from bible believers. Story, fiction or not, is a powerful communication device. Even the most fanciful tale represents a view of the world and can teach most valuable lessons. In the case of the Shack, the author, William P. Young, has been very clear that his purpose of the book is to teach his understanding of spirituality. No wonder small groups have studied it and the author produced a study guide (“The Shack Study Guide: Healing for Your Journey Through Loss, Trauma, and Pain”). And if that’s not enough, you can purchase the daily devotional (“The Shack: Reflections for Every Day of the Year”), also by the author. Just fiction, eh?

Especially given The Shack’s expressed purpose and its impact, should it not be subject to biblical scrutiny (like everything else in life)? Due to its popularity and its imminent return to center stage due to the coming film, I encourage you to read the following review of the book I wrote some time ago:

I decided to read “The Shack” by William P. Young, because of its great popularity and its enthusiastic endorsement by many Bible believers even though what I had heard about it indicated that it espoused a non-biblical spirituality.

Young deals with many important issues, including free will, the problem of evil, the love of God, forgiveness, passing judgment on others, abusive authority, etc. He does so through the fictional account (made to sound as if true – a key literary device used in “The Shack”) of the main character, “Mack”. Having suffered great personal tragedy, Mack receives a mysterious invitation to return to the place where the tragedy occurred.

At the shack, Mack encounters Young’s depiction of the Trinity, namely “Papa” also called “Elousia” in the form of an Afro-American woman (though in one chapter “Papa” takes the form of a man, because in the experience that soon follows, as Papa says to him, “This morning you’re going to need a father” [p. 210]). Papa as a woman is consistently called, “Papa,” but using the pronoun “she.” Jesus is called “Jesus” throughout and looks Jewish (he has a big nose). The Holy Spirit is an ethereal woman-like person with Asian features, named “Sarayu.”

The bulk of the book is Mack’s conversations and experiences with one or more of these three characters, plus a special appearance by a personification of Wisdom, aptly named “Sophia.” The characters teach Mack what’s what about himself, God, and life.

The style of the book evokes thought and emotion. The reader interacts with the other characters in the story through Mack. Mack is a sort of everyperson with questions about life that many of us have. He struggles through his strange experience with “God” in a way that I expect most of us would. As his heart softens to his experience, I suspect most readers would as well. I cannot say that the author intentionally manipulates the reader, but I have no doubt that if Young would have simply stated his theology, it woud be a lot more difficult to accept.

That Young uses story to communicate supposed theological truths should not in itself be an issue. We could mention many wonderful books that have done just that. The problem with “The Shack,” however is that besides Young’s questionable theology and ideology, he puts his ideas into the mouth of God. Some may not see a difference between C.S. Lewis’s Aslan of Narnia or Bunyan’s characters in Pilgrim’s Progress and the characters of “The Shack,” but both Lewis and Bunyan create fictional worlds through which they seek to communicate their version of truth. The reader in those cases knows that he is entering the writer’s world and is invited to engage their ideas. Young creates a dream-like reality, where the reader’s judgment is suspended and may easily confuse Young’s fiction with truth. While “Papa” and “Sarayu” are extremely unusual depictions of the Father and the Spirit, the “Jesus” character is depicted as simply “Jesus”. To write “And Jesus said” in any genre of writing, is best avoided unless we are quoting Scripture.

To make matter worse, Young’s ideas themselves are far from biblical. As I mentioned, God the Father is depicted as “Papa” and most of the time is in the form of an Afro-American woman. This is reason enough to reject “The Shack” as legitimate. While God in his essence is not male or female, he has revealed himself in masculine terms, as “Father” in particular. While it has become increasingly popular to emphasize God’s “feminine side,” he chose to reveal himself in masculine terms. Jesus told us to pray “Our Father in heaven” (Mathew 6:9). Whatever value there may be in exploring the so-called feminine side of God, the Scriptures never encourage us to image God in feminine terms. Mack is told that the reason why Papa is depicted the way “she” is, is because she loves him and doesn’t want him to fall back into religious stereotypes. Religious stereotypes may indeed be a problem, but not God-chosen biblical imagery. If we have misunderstood what God intends in the Scriptures, the Scriptures themselves will correct us, not new forms of spirituality.

We are given the impression that God’s revelation of himself in the past was due to our need at the time. Since our current need is different, so God now reveals himself (herself?) to us differently. Even if that were true (which it is not), who is to decide how God is revealing himself? Young’s depiction of God is one of his own making. It is not derived from the Scriptures. By using terms such as Elousia and Sarayu, we may suspect unbiblical spiritual sources. The gender-confused “Papa” may fit in with our post-modern society, but has no resemblance to the God of the Bible. And since when does God reveal himself according to our need? Our need is to accept God’s revelation of himself. While God has accommodated himself to our understanding, he has done so in such a way to reveal to us who he really is. To change biblical images based on our needs or anything else is to risk changing the essence of God’s Truth. There is more that can be said about the details of Young’s version of God, but let’s move on.

I mentioned that Young deals with some important questions, but his answers are unbiblical and extreme. For example, he attempts to resolve the issue of God’s sovereignty and our free will by claiming that while God prefers us to do his will, we are always free to make our own decisions. Tell that to Pharaoh and Saul/Paul of Tarsus. According to Young, human institutions (namely religious, political, and economic) are the cause of all the evil in the world. The only things that matter to Young are love and relationships. This is Hippie talk, not Bible talk. Yes there are major wrongs that have been done through human institutions, but the problem is sin, not institutions. Governments, for example, according to Romans 13, have been instituted by God, not man, and they exist for a good purpose. Young “solves” the problem of evil and suffering, by calling us to understand the role that evildoers have in God’s purposes. This is not the “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” of the story of Joseph (Genesis 50:20), but it is far more of a Hindu, “everything that happens is from God,” so learn to accept life as it is without question. Yet Jesus taught us to pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done,” not to sing “All you need is love.”

Perhaps the reason why so many Christians love “The Shack” is because for the past several years we have played with and accepted all sorts of unbiblical concepts in the guise of legitimate spirituality. What Young has done is taken our current image of God and truth and rolled it into an appealing emotional package.

In the book of Acts with regard to the Bereans’ response to Paul’s teaching, we read “they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). Paul instructed the Corinthian believers, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said” (1 Corinthians 14:29). That “The Shack” might challenge our thinking or touch our hearts is one thing. But is Young’s depiction of God scriptural? Are his answers to some of life’s questions truly correct? God expects us to do more than accept something based on its appeal, its popularity, endorsements by famous people, or its emotional impact. We need to weigh whatever we are told and judge its validity based on God’s Truth in the Bible. Based on this standard, “The Shack” falls flat.