Surrounded by a culture of death, we struggle desperately to preserve the value of life. We hate war but are forced to defend ourselves, despite the awful risks. This may sound a lot like present-day Israel, but I am also reflecting on what happened in Israel more than 2,000 years ago, events that inspired an annual celebration called Hanukkah.
In 165 B.C., the tiny country of Israel was invaded by a powerful enemy: Syria. Syria’s ruler was determined to force his Hellenistic way of life on the Jewish people. Though radical Islam had not yet come into existence, radical Hellenization shared many of the same ruthless and destructive tendencies. If the Syrians had their way, the Jewish people would have ceased to exist. Jewish religion, culture, laws and language would have been obliterated from the face of the earth.
A God-fearing man named Matityahu (Mattathias) courageously risked his life to oppose the Syrians. He and his sons, soon known as the Maccabees, fought valiantly against the Syrian army. It was a long and bitter fight against overwhelming odds. Many lives were lost, but eventually the Maccabees triumphed, recaptured Jerusalem and the Temple—and Israel was saved once again from extinction.
Salvation. What does that word mean to you? In the Bible, the Hebrew word Yesha usually refers to physical deliverance, such as the victory we commemorate at Hanukkah. God saved the Jewish people then, just as He had saved us from Pharaoh and the Philistines.
Perhaps more familiar to Christians is the salvation that individuals experience—personal salvation by God’s grace through faith in Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah. This salvation means a whole new life, forgiveness of sin and the promise of eternal life to come. Yeshua = Yesha!
Yeshua stood in the Temple less than 200 years after God had used the Maccabees to save Israel from the Syrian army. He offered a very different kind of salvation when he said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:27-28).
Clearly, physical and spiritual salvation are two different things, though at times they are related. Physical salvation may occur miraculously, but it is temporal and circumstantial, whereas spiritual salvation is the greatest miracle of all. Spiritual salvation is eternally secured through the indestructible power of God. If we depend solely on our limited perspective, we can fail to recognize these important distinctions. And it will be to our detriment, and the detriment of those we hope to reach, if we place greater value on physical than on spiritual salvation. That’s not to say we should care only for one or the other, we just need to maintain perspective.
Earlier this year a team of Jews for Jesus staff and volunteers was ministering to Israelis traveling in India. A couple of participants, Isaiah and Bryan, met and witnessed to some Israeli families, and joined them on a hike to Kiraganga. During the steep mountain climb up to the site of a spectacular waterfall, Bryan was speaking to an Israeli college professor and his sixteen-year-old son. Suddenly the son took a wrong step and stumbled into a steep crevice. He grabbed hold of a bush to save him from the fall—but the bush quickly began to give way. In a split-second reaction, Bryan shimmied down off the ledge, grabbed the boy, hoisted him back up off the precipice, and very likely saved his life. Of course the whole family was deeply grateful. They were eager to hear more about Bryan’s and Isaiah’s faith, receive literature and stay in contact.
On a separate occasion in the town of Lei, Bryan and Isaiah were with several other team members, including Naomi, when a desperate Israeli jumped out of a taxi and frantically pleaded for help. His friend had been in a terrible motorcycle accident and had lost a lot of blood. Could our team come to the hospital and possibly donate blood to help save his life? Of course they all climbed in and rushed to the hospital.
A group of Israelis had gathered including a Nachman* rabbi. Our team members began to pray for the accident victim, whose name was Israel. They also began talking to all who had gathered, including the rabbi, about their faith in Jesus. It turned out that Naomi’s blood type matched Israel’s, and she was able to donate the blood that saved his life that day. Later the team had dinner with the Israeli friends they had met at the hospital; they left them with Hebrew New Testaments and other literature.
One last story I will share with you. Isaiah and Bryan had frequented a particular restaurant on several occasions and had become friendly with the Israeli waiter, though they had not yet shared the gospel with him. They didn’t want to leave the country without doing so, and on their last visit they made a point of telling the waiter about their faith.
The waiter seemed unnerved by this and exclaimed how very strange it was they should be talking to him about Jesus as he had just watched the Jesus film the night before. God’s timing is perfect! The waiter took further literature and promised to think about whether Jesus might be the Messiah. Weeks later, Isaiah and Bryan learned that the same Israeli waiter had shown up at the Rosen Center in Tel Aviv and prayed with our staff there to receive Christ.
I long to see God’s salvation come to Israel, and to all people, through faith in Messiah Jesus.
Salvation. What does it mean to Isaiah and Bryan and Naomi?
No doubt they were grateful to be a part of saving the lives of two young men. I found those two stories compelling, but even more compelling is the salvation of that waiter when he prayed to receive Yeshua at the Rosen Center. Don’t you agree?
The Talmud says, “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world” (Sanhedrin 37a). That’s how important the fleeting life of even one individual is counted. How much more the eternal soul?
This Hanukkah I will rejoice once again that God saved His people Israel from her enemies, whether they be the Syrians of the past or Islamic terrorists of the present. But even more than that I long to see God’s salvation come to Israel, and to all people, through faith in Messiah Jesus. Let’s pray in earnest that during this holiday season and in the coming year many Jewish people—indeed many from every nation, including Syria—will be saved when they hear His voice and follow Him.
*Nachman is a Hassidic sect of Judaism that is very mystical and aggressively outreach-oriented
David Brickner is also an author, public speaker and avid hiker. Find out more about David, his writings, speaking schedule and possible availability to speak at your church.