In the 4th century before Christ, there was a military general named Antiochus, with a son named Seleucus. Seleucus served as a general under Alexander the Great, and after Alexander’s death, he became the first king of the Seleucid empire.
When he became king, he founded and named sixteen cities in honor of his father, Antiochus. One of these cities is the Syrian city of Antioch, which is now situated in modern Turkey.
About two hundred years later, one of his descendants reigned from the throne of the Seleucid empire: Antiochus Epiphanes. He attacked God’s people, forcing them to discontinue circumcision, Sabbath observance, and the daily sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple. He even desecrated the temple by going inside it, and sacrificing a pig to Zeus.
During this period of time, the capital of his empire was in Antioch.
Antiochus built a stone fortress at Jerusalem, to hold a garrison of Seleucid soldiers, along with many supplies. In a modern context, this would be similar to having an army from Iran or Syria occupying a large fortress in Washington D.C. This was his way to keep the thumb of oppression firmly upon the people in Jerusalem.
After all of this, the agent’s forces fortified David’s City with a very strong wall and powerful towers, and it became their fortress [Greek: Acra]. They stationed sinful, immoral people there, and these soldiers held down their position. They stocked up with weapons and food, collected the spoils of Jerusalem, and stored them there. They were a great menace. They ambushed the sanctuary. They were an evil opponent of Israel at all times. Its inhabitants shed innocent blood all around the sanctuary, and they even polluted the sanctuary itself.
~ 1 Maccabees 1:33-37
A great man by the name of Judas Maccabeus rose up in opposition to Antiochus Epiphanes. He rallied the Jewish forces, and successfully threw off the Seleucid stranglehold over Jewish worship. They cleansed the temple, reinstating worship and all the customary Jewish observances. However, this stone fortress—called the “Acra“—remained full of hostile enemy forces.
About 20 later, Judas was deceased, and his younger brother Simon held the reigns of the Jewish forces. He beseiged the Acra, and finally captured the fortress in the year 141 B.C.
Those who were in the elevated fortress at Jerusalem were prevented from moving around to buy and sell in the country. So they were very hungry, and many perished from famine. They appealed to Simon to make peace with them, and he did. But he expelled them from there and cleansed the elevated fortress from its pollutions. On the twenty-third day of the second month, . . . the Jews entered it with praise and palm branches, with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs. A great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel. Simon declared that they should celebrate this day annually with rejoicing. He strengthened the defenses of the temple hill alongside the elevated fortress, and he and his soldiers lived there.
~ 1 Maccabees 13:49-52
The fortress had finally been cleansed. The enemy had finally been driven away. God’s people were finally at peace.
Less than 200 years later, another man made a historic trip into Jerusalem. He, too, was coming to release God’s people from the enemy’s oppression. His entrance, too, was accompanied with hymns, songs, praises, and palm branches. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, amidst a crowd of people, palm branches, and the cry of “Hosanna to God in the highest!”
The next day, He did not cleanse a fortress of a foreign, occupying army. Instead, He cleansed the temple. God’s people themselves had become rebellious, and had turned this house of prayer into a den of thieves. Jesus turned over the tables of the moneychangers, and drove out the people who were buying and selling.
In less than a week, Jesus was condemned to death. The fickle crowds who had just cried“Hosanna”, now screamed “Crucify Him!”. And Pontius Pilate, fearing men more than he feared God, sent Jesus away to be crucified—possibly the most painful form of torture and execution ever devised by man.
Through His death and resurrection, Jesus conquered a fortress far more powerful than the one Simon Maccabeus had beseiged two centuries earlier. Jesus stormed the gates of hell itself, conquering Satan, sin, death, hell, and the grave.
Centuries earlier, Antiochus had a godless son named Seleucus, who founded the city of Antioch. His descendant, Antiochus Epiphanes, attacked God’s people, and tried to abolish the worship of Israel’s God. He set up a fortress at Jerusalem, intending to keep God’s people under the thumb of foreign oppression.
Simon Maccabeus brought peace to God’s people. They celebrated with songs, and with palm branches. Simon conquered the enemy fortress, and cleansed it.
Jesus of Nazareth brought peace to God’s people. We celebrate with songs, and with palm branches. Jesus conquered the very fortress of hades, and He harrowed it.
Antiochus Epiphanes was an Antichrist. During his reign of terror, the capital of his kingdom was in Antioch.
Jesus is the Christ, the conquering Messiah. He brought peace to His people, and Scripture says they were first called Christians in Antioch. This pagan city, named after a godless man, has been transformed into a place associated with the very heartbeat of Orthodox Christianity.
Thus the swords are beaten into ploughshares. The spears are beaten into pruning hooks. And every weapon of the enemy is brought into the service of Christ and His Kingdom.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, our God is one.
This sermon was preached on Sunday morning, April 28, 2013, at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Dn. Joseph Gleason.