Hanukkah, Jesus, and our Witness
Did you know Hanukkah is in the New Testament? And did you realize there is a powerful application from Hanukkah for our Christian witness?
First, let’s discuss the biblical and historical background of Hanukkah.
In John 10:22-33 we find Jesus testifying about Himself.
Note the timeframe for this particular narrative is the Feast of Dedication, “Now it was the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple, in Solomon’s porch” (John 10:22-23).
The apostle John wrote the Gospel of John and recorded several events surrounding Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem during various Jewish Feasts prior to this Feast of Dedication in John 10. In John 2 Jesus cleanses the Temple of the moneychangers and merchants during Passover. In John 5 Jesus heals a sick man at the Pool of Bethseda during an unnamed Jewish Feast, and in John 7-8 we find Jesus ministering during the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths, which is usually celebrated in late September or early October on our Gregorian calendar. In Chapter 9 Jesus then heals a blind man at the Pool of Saloam, also located in Jerusalem.
Now we come to the Feast of Dedication in John 10. What is the Feast of Dedication? That my friends would be Hanukkah! The Hebrew word Hanukkah means “dedication.” The Feast of Dedication commemorates a legendary miracle and the heroic freedom fighters of Jewish folklore.
Let me give you the basic historical setting.
From 175-168 B.C. Jewish people in Judea were being persecuted by the Syrian/Greek Emperor Antiochus IV, who was part of what was known as the Seleucid Dynasty. Antiochus was an aggressive proselytizer for the Greek or Hellenistic Culture.
Antiochus introduced paganism, built gymnasiums, introduced Greek games, plundered the Temple, and murdered the priests. He was not exactly a nice guy. He actually took the name “Epiphanies “meaning” the manifest god. In response, the Jewish people called him “epimanes” – the mad man.
Antiochus campaigned for the honor and worship of himself as god, and amazingly this was foretold in Daniel 11, where the Scripture states, “And forces shall be mustered by him, and they shall defile the sanctuary fortress; then they shall take away the daily sacrifices, and place there the abomination of desolation. Then the king shall do according to his own will: he shall exalt and magnify himself above every god, shall speak blasphemies against the God of gods, and shall prosper till the wrath has been accomplished; for what has been determined shall be done. He shall regard neither the God of his fathers nor the desire of women, nor regard any god; for he shall exalt himself above them all” (Daniel 11:31, 36-37).
Now while we often think of the fulfillment of this prophesied abomination of desolation by Antichrist, which will occur in the future, this abomination of Antiochus was a partial fulfillment of that prophecy and a preview of that horrific time of Antichrist’s tyranny.
On the 25th of Jewish month of Kislev, 168 BC, Antiochus sacrificed a pig on the Temple altar to “desecrate the Temple.” The Temple, and especially the Holy of Holies, had previously been dedicated to God, set apart for Holy service. But now Antiochus poured the most unclean thing, pig’s blood on the alter in the Holy of Holies, erected a huge statue of himself in the Temple, and introduced a prostitution cult. Historians wrote: “Jerusalem became strange to those born in her.”
What resulted was the revolt of the Jewish Priests called Hassidim and freedom fighters better known as the Maccabees. This revolt was both a civil war and a war against the outside enemy.
The priest Mattathias Maccabee gathered his family and a group of priests to form a rebellion. This group of freedom fighters were called the “Maccabees.” In 168 BC a company of Greek officers intending to enforce the King’s ordnances, addressed Mattathias first. They ordered him to begin the sacrificial offerings to pagan idols, promising that in return he and his sons would be admitted to the King’s circle of friends. Mattathias refused, killing the first Jew who obeyed the command, then killing one of the king’s men.
In the midst of this, he yells out, “Whoever is for the God of Israel, follow me to the hills.” There they worked on their strategy.
Now it appears that the revolt that was first directed at the Jewish people who submitted to Greek culture, then towards the foreign oppressor. And we might ask why? Well, because a house divided against itself can not stand, and certainly can not stand in battle.
On the 25th of Kislev, exactly three years after the desecration of the Temple, in 165 BC, Judah Maccabee, the third son of Mattathias, along with 3,000 freedom fighters, called the “Maccabees,” defeated Antiochus’ army of 47,000 soldiers, and retook Jerusalem. And on that fateful day, as the Jewish people celebrated their victory, the Temple was cleansed and rededicated.
Historically, we know the victory and the rededication of the Temple are true. But what about the miracle of the light? And why is Hanukkah also sometimes referred to as “The Festival of Lights?” The legendary miracle of light is found in Rabbinic writings, but in no other sources. The menorah, with seven branches, was lit continuously. It could never go out. In fact in synagogues today there is a light, called the Ner Tamid or Eternal Flame, that never goes out.
Yet, that Temple had been desecrated for three years, and during that time the menorah remained unlit. Legend has it that as the Temple was cleansed, and the menorah was to be lit once again, there was only enough oil to last one day. Yet, miraculously, the menorah remained lit for eight days, enough time for the priests to press the olives to make the oil for the menorah to stay ablaze continuously. So we have “The Festival of Lights,” which, as I mentioned above, is an eight-day holiday which this year runs from December 18-26.
For you and I, there’s a powerful application. What in our lives are we willing to compromise on so that we can protect ourselves from persecution, whether it be physical or in other ways? Do we avoid taking a stand for the Lord because it might bring on persecution from family, neighbors, friends, co-workers, or others. Mattathias, Judah and the Maccabees refused to compromise.
The Lord calls each of us to be dedicated or holy unto Him, and sometimes that allegiance to God means going against the crowd, sometimes even against those close to us. And sometimes it may place us in very difficult circumstances, as it did the Maccabees.
As we’re faced with pressures and the temptations in our modern day to bow the knee and to compromise our faith, may we also remember the powerful words of the Apostles to those who would want to silence their witness, as they declared in Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men.” And as we remember, may God grant us the grace and faith to stay faithful, dedicated unto Him! Amen.