For many Christians having a Hanukkah menorah next to a depiction of the Nativity may seem like a strange sight, but for a growing number of EA pastors from around the country, celebrating the biblical holiday of Hanukkah is a natural part of expressing their Christian faith during the Advent season.
Rev. Frank Sapp and Rev. Pete Sapp, brothers and EA pastors, grew up celebrating Hanukkah and the Hebrew roots of their faith as a family under the pastoral leadership of their late father, Rev. Frank Sapp, Sr., who had once served EA churches in Piqua, Ohio. Rev. Pete Sapp, who serves as pastor of Trinity Reformed Church, an EA affiliated congregation in Bradys Bend, PA, jokes that “We celebrate Hanukkah because my mom lives at my house and she makes us.” Family roots and faith traditions run deep in the Sapp family.
Yet, all joking aside, the Sapp brothers have deeper reasons for celebrating the biblical holiday. Rev. Pete Sapp also notes, “My family celebrates Hanukkah because we find it a great chance to stay connected to the Jewish origins of our religion, while at the same time being able to see and worship Jesus in and through its traditions and celebrations.” Those sentiments are echoed by Pete’s older brother, Rev. Frank Sapp, Jr. who serves as pastor of Beulah Congregational Church in Beulah, ND. Frank states, “As Christians in my household, we celebrate Hanukkah because Jesus did (cf John 10). My family and I look at [the] history of the festival and use it as a reminder of God’s faithfulness and a time for us to be devoted to Him, not only those eight nights but throughout the entire year.”
Indeed, the Bible does record that Jesus celebrated Hanukkah during his life and ministry. John 10:22-23 states, “It was now winter, and Jesus was in Jerusalem at the time of Hanukkah, the Festival of Dedication. He was in the Temple, walking through the section known as Solomon’s Colonnade.”
“Jesus celebrated Hanukkah. You can too!” quips Rev. Ron Shifley, an EA affiliated pastor serving Scotland United Church of Christ in Scotland, SD. Shifley believes that since the celebration of the biblical holiday was a part of Jesus’ ministry, and most likely part of the worship life of the Early Church (Acts 2:46), that Christians today ought to be able to follow in the Lord’s footsteps and celebrate Hanukkah since it was important to him.
Rev. Shifley has hosted a number of Hanukkah celebration events for various groups in the church he serves including confirmation classes, and shut-in residents at the local nursing home. Shifley also assisted the church’s Christian Education committee in writing a children’s Sunday School curriculum to teach about Hanukkah, based on the Apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees, that has been published on Rotation.org. Part of that curriculum, included a devotional booklet that Shifley later revised and published as a book in 2015 entitled “Light in the Darkness: A Hanukkah Devotional for Jesus Followers.”
Shifley believes that Hanukkah matters to Christians, not just because it was celebrated by Jesus, but because it set the stage for Jesus’ ministry among first century Jews. He notes, “Had King Antiochus Epiphanes succeeded in wiping out biblical faith, worship and identity by the laws he enacted in 167 B.C. (1 Maaccabees 1:20-63) that banned worship of God, owning and studying the Scriptures, celebration of the Sabbath and all other biblical holidays along with other Jewish customs, then Jesus would have been born into an entirely different world. The Scriptures probably would no longer have existed, let alone been read and studied. The Temple in Jerusalem would have been a temple to Zeus, and not dedicated to God. His parents probably would not have raised him up in the Jewish faith and people would not have been looking for a Messiah, a descendant of David, to be their Savior and Lord. The whole back story of Jesus’ life and ministry would have been erased. All of Jesus’ teaching about the God of Israel and the understanding of Jesus’ death as an atonement for sin would have been foreign concepts to the Jewish people if biblical faith hadn’t been preserved by the Maccabees at the time of Hanukkah in 165 B.C.”
Yet, because of the events in 1 Maccabees and the holiday of Hanukkah, the faith, worship, and identity of God’s covenant people was preserved. In fact, the Jewish people were even more observant in their faith and in their longing for the Messiah because of the memory that their religion and culture had almost been wiped out about 160 years before. If for nothing more, Christians ought to remember Hanukkah because it preserved the world view, faith and Old Testament writings that grounded the Early Church and the composition of the New Testament.”
If you would like to learn more about this biblical holiday that originated between the times that the Old and New Testaments were written, the EA Desk Calendar contains dates of observance and suggested Scripture readings for the holiday. Questions and suggestions on how to observe Hanukkah either at home with family or in your local congregation may be addressed to Rev. Pete Sapp, Rev. Frank Sapp, or Rev. Ron Shifley, among other EA clergy around the country who celebrate the biblical holiday.