A New Testament Look at Hanukkah
Many Gentiles (non-Jews) think of Hanukkah as being similar to the "cultural Christian" celebration called Christmas. Some of Hanukkah's modern observances are similar to Christmas in that they both occur around the same time of year with an exchange of gifts and contain the theme of lights. However, in reality, These two observances are significantly different. Christmas claims a joyful celebration of the birth of Christ, in contrast to Hanukkah which historically, centers around the remembrance of a dark period in Israel's history. This particular dark time was intense, gruesome, and weighted with violence. Its story is both tragic and yet victorious. There is much to learn from this ancient observance, and the Jewish people, concerning the issues of love and loyalty to our God in the face of extreme persecution.
In 2013 Hanukkah overlapped with Thanksgiving in that the first day of the eight-day observance of Hanukkah began on Thanksgiving day. The last time this happened was 1888 and won't happen again for another 70,000 some years.
How appropriate in that Thanksgiving could be considered a central theme of this Jewish festivity, about God's deliverance and miracles.
Jesus Celebrated Hanukkah
Most modern Jewish celebrations can be traced to, and are rooted in, God's instruction for Holydays in the Old Testament. Hanukkah, however, is not mentioned in the Old because its events occurred in the 400 years between the two Testaments. These 400 years were known as the "silent years" because it is the last we hear of the prophets until Jesus is born.
In light of this, it might be tempting to question the legitimacy of this holiday except that Jesus Himself observed Hanukkah, otherwise known as the "Feast of Dedication."
Now it was the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) in Jerusalem, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple, in Solomon’s porch.
— John 10:22-23
In understanding the history of this observance, I hope to give this account in John chapter ten greater depth and clarity, as will be addressed later in the article, but first, we will lay the foundation.
The Backdrop to This Story
Historically the Old Testament leaves off at the time of the return of God's people from their appointed 70-year Babylonian captivity, which was a result of their forsaking God and His ways for idolatry and adopting the wicked practices of the pagan world around them. When they returned to their land to restore the temple, they were under the rule of the Medo-Persian empire, which overtook the Babylonian empire, which was later conquered by Alexander the Great, king of Greece. Alexander the Great had no successors. Therefore, his kingdom went to four of his generals, which eventually led to the Seleucid empire and the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes over the region of Israel.
The Barbaric Antiochus Epiphanes
Antiochus Epiphanes was a cruel, tyrannical leader and an ancient terrorist. He insisted that the Jewish people assimilate to the Greek secular culture's customs and forsake their Biblically prescribed worship of God. Antiochus Epiphanes forbade the Jewish people from engaging in any form of religious practice, including the reading of the Torah, circumcision, and observance of the sabbath. If they were discovered observing any of the above, the result was torture, bloodshed, and violent humiliation. Women and infants were not spared from his cruelty.
The name "Epiphanes" means "God made manifest," which implied Antioch's desire to be worshiped as such. It was a highly blasphemous claim. His method of persuasion to comply was as graphic, horrific, and as hostile as the holocaust was.
Antiochus Epiphanes's thirst for homage found expression in the temple's desecration, which was the place and symbol of God's connection and presence with His people. He notoriously erected a statue of Zeus, to which he believed himself to be a manifestation of, in the inner courts of the temple. He also offered a pig (a type of poster animal of uncleanness and defilement to the Jews) on the altar of the temple and poured its blood on the Holy of Holies' stones.
It is at the height of Antiochus Epiphanes's brutality that the events of Hanukkah take place. Hellenistic hedonism (the devotion to and worship of one's own pleasure), just before the execution of this radical persecution, had become hugely influential and pervasive in the secular world as well as in Jewish thought and culture.
The book of Daniel prophetically discusses this period in chapters eight and eleven.
The Maccabean Revolt
It is out of this tumult that Judas Maccabeus, a Jewish priest, who refused to abandon his God, temple, and traditions, led a successful three-year revolt. His resistance resulted in several battles against the much larger Seleucid army. His goal was to reclaim the temple and its practices of worship. His success was the first of great miracles surrounding these events. The Maccabeans' loyalty was admirable and unprecedented. Miracles are a prevalent theme of Hanukkah.
Let your heart therefore be loyal to the Lord our God.
— I Kings 8:61
God gave them victory over their enemies, and they reclaimed the temple.
Yours, O Lord, is the greatness, The power and the glory, The victory and the majesty; For all that is in heaven and in earth is Yours; Yours is the kingdom, O Lord, And You are exalted as head over all.
— I Chronicles 29:11
The "dedication" of the temple was immediate. The first order of business was to cleanse the temple of all evil and re-establish worship. This cleansing theme illustrates for us a lesson in sanctification. According to these observances, if there be seasons in the spirit realm, this time of year may be an excellent time to search out and cleanse the temple of our hearts of things that are defiling it. These might include all distractions that stand in the way of pure worship, which consequently allows our spiritual enemies to defeat us.
Now sanctify yourselves, sanctify the house of the Lord God of your fathers (we are that house - I Corinthians 6:19), and carry out the rubbish from the holy place.
— II Chronicles 29:5
The Menorah—Festival of Lights
This re-establishment included the relighting of the temple Menorah, the seven-branched lampstand in the Holy place, which brings us to the second miracle of Hanukkah by which this holiday came to be known as a Festival of Lights.
It might be a fair revelation and application that when there is another god in the temple, the lamp of the Lord extinguishes. Re-dedicating our lives to God is the start of reestablishing the light of God in us.
Uniquely processed olive oil fueled the Menorah's light, but only one cruse of undefiled oil could be found. It was only was enough to keep it lit for one day, yet miraculously, it lasted for eight days. Hanukkah Menorahs have eight branches for this reason.
The middle stem of the Hanukkah Menorah is called the "shemash." It is otherwise known as the servant candle that lights all others. This particular light and its position offer us a unique picture drawn from Revelation.
I saw seven golden lampstands,and in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man . . . the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches.
— Revelation 1:13,20
The "One like the Son of man" amid the lampstand (Church)" is foretold in the "shemash" portion of the Menorah. Jesus, the light of the world (John 8:12), is the source of light for all the other branches. The Hanukkah Menorah represents the church with Christ at its center, against the backdrop of a very dark world. This thought is further illustrated in that it occurs during the darkest part of the year in winter.
You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.
— Matthew 5:14-16
Significance of Oil
Modern observances of Hanukkah most commonly involve the cooking of fried foods such as potato latkes and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) in memory of this miraculous event of the oil. In the Scriptures, oil is many times symbolic of the work and or empowerment of the Holy Spirit that dwells in and works through us (2 Timothy 1:14). The Holy Spirit's empowerment finds its expression in the Bible in terms of anointing that resulted in miracles, again a theme of this holiday.
God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him.
— Acts 10:38
In the Old Testament, this anointing was reserved for priests and kings. In the New Testament, we are these very priests and kings.
To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
— Revelation 1:5-6
Within that assignment, the Holy Spirit empowers us to do His work.
. . . hey were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness.
— Acts 4:31
The symbol of oil also is in concert with the parable Jesus told of the ten virgins. The lesson concerned five virgins who kept their lamps (spirits) filled with oil (Holy Spirit) in preparation for the coming of the bridegroom (The Lord Jesus Christ), and some who did not and consequently were excluded from the marriage feast. This metaphor can be an essential lesson on keeping our lamps filled with oil, especially in these dark times, so that upon His return, we would be ready and about His business rather than procrastinating in spiritual matters and disciplines.
The Defiled Stones
One more detail of the temple cleansing worth noting that will tie us to the New Testament account of this observance was removing stones from the Holy of Holies, which Antiochus Epiphanes so deliberately and blasphemously defiled with the pig's blood. The priests of the time were unsure as to what to do with these stones. On the one hand, they were sacred, and therefore disposing of them seemed sacrilegious. On the other hand, they were defiled and could not remain in the Holy of Holies. They decided to place them in "Solomon's Porch," the outer court of the temple where Jesus was during the discourse observed in John chapter ten. They concluded that when the Messiah came, He would tell them what to do with the stones.
The Pharisees and Sadducees
Before looking at the text in John chapter ten, it is essential to understand that two well-known biblical groups emerged from the Maccabean Revolt. One of these groups was very liberal and succumbed to the secular systems and lifestyles of its time and would later become those known as the Sadducees. The other group resolved to maintain the religious rule, human-made ones included, for the sake of nationalism, and this group became known as the Pharisees. Both groups were self-righteously and politically motivated in their philosophies and religious views. These, along with the scribes, were the religious rulers of Jesus's time who seemed to work the hardest at discrediting Him as God.
We may see a similar parallel in our Greco-Roman like culture showcased in our political parties. In one camp, this idea reflects the increasing pressure to assimilate to the hedonistic values of this present day, much like the Sadducees. It is also mirrored in the other camp with the hypocritical politicization of faith for self-exalting hidden agendas, like the Pharisees. Either way, we miss the eternal big picture.
John chapter Ten
It is in John Chapter Ten beginning at verse twenty-two, during Hanukkah, that Jesus continues his conversation with the religious rulers in Solomon's porch. This particular conversation began during the feast of Tabernacles, a chapter earlier, after healing the man born blind, which illustrated the blindness of the religious rulers who refused to acknowledge His deity.
The Good Shepherd
The religious rulers' debate, as noted in John 9:16, centers on whether or not Jesus is God. Jesus does not make a clear proclamation of His deity but implies it in His actions of miracles and discourse on being "The" Good Shepherd in the next chapter.
Keep in mind that it was this very temple and its rituals of worship that they so vehemently fought for during the reign of the sacrilegious and blasphemous Antiochus Epiphanes. Recall it was Antiochus who claimed to be God and demanded their worship and violated their temple.
The religious leaders practically begged Jesus just to come right out and say that He is God. Undoubtedly their goal was to accuse Him of the blasphemy that most, on this occasion, would be hypersensitive to.
. . . the Jews surrounded Him and said to Him, “How long do You keep us in doubt? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.
— John 10:24
In this chapter, we see Jesus implying Himself to be God interestingly not as a dictatorial leader like Epiphanes but as a shepherd that does not drive or force but leads and does good and not evil. He chastises them for not being able to see the obvious earlier in John 9:39-41. He begins to describe in shepherding terms the reason for their blindness, which essentially amounts to unbelief in Him that results in their not being one of His fold.
Miracles—a Theme of Hanukkah and a Witness of Jesus's Deity
Jesus points to His miracles, which would have been a recognizable theme surrounding Hanukkah that they were observing. The miracles validated His insinuation. He, directly and indirectly, accuses His audience of not hearing Him, when Jesus becomes more direct and makes the following claim.
I and My Father are one.
— John 10:30
This admission was the moment that His accusers had all been waiting for. They understood that Jesus was claiming to be God in this statement. At this announcement, the religious rulers entitled themselves to make a possible legal claim of blasphemy against Him. They utilized and prostituted the passion and themes of this occasion of Hanukkah to rid themselves of the one which they perceived as standing in their way of both political advancement and the maintenance of their perceived religious superiority among the people. They had begun to worship the traditions rather than the One whom the traditions pointed to, and In their misguided religious zeal they
. . . took up stones again to stone Him.
— John 10:31
Here is the Messiah they had so long been waiting for. He is the one who would tell them what to do with these stones, and instead, they picked up these very stones to throw at Him.
Jesus asked them, following the theme of miracles once again.
“Many good works I have shown you from My Father. For which of those works do you stone Me?
— John 10:32
Their reply sounds as if they were accusing Him of being Antiochus Epiphanes.
For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy, and because You, being a Man, make Yourself God.
— John 10:33
The language and imagery of Hanukkah continues this time with the theme of sanctification, which has a relevant application as well
. . . do you say of Him whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?
— John 10:36
Jesus shows them that He is the real ultimate Temple that they are so seemingly loyal to and are religiously protecting. The Old Testament patterns of the wilderness Tabernacle of worship, as well as the Temple, imaged the God who would come to dwell with His people. Every detail and measure of their structures pointed to and illustrated the very one standing before them, and they couldn't see it. They were inherently blinded by their self-perceived righteousness, religious zeal, and political agendas that they thought would bring "this life" happiness.
The practical application is to realize that we, too, are temples of the Holy Spirit in need of continual sanctification of anything, attitude, or activity that comes before Him and centers itself on personal agendas and worldly temporal counterfeit forms of happiness and security.
. . . what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will dwell in them And walk among them. I will be their God, And they shall be My people.
— II Corinthians 6:16
I was previously at a loss about how to conclude this article until the Lord had a genius idea of animating the lesson through how it applied to me through some humbling personal revelations that exposed some embarrassing prideful places in myself that require cleansing and sanctification.
I have lived on both ends of the spectrum through the course of my life. I have been both a liberal Sadducee and a religious Pharisee.
Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
— Matthew 16:6
The contrast of these two parties shows up in the politics of the world outside of us but can be underlying in the world inside of us, as was displayed in a particular experience I had.
In my younger years, like the Sadducees, I succumbed to the adaptation of worldliness. I was the epitome of unfaithfulness to God, which ultimately reflected itself in my life choices and relationships.
In my return from a life of disloyalty, I made allegiance to God a focus of my attention in both my studies and behaviors.
My loyalty turned pharisee at some point and was exposed during what should have been an innocent conversation between myself and another. In misdirected Pharisitic like zeal, I launched into an opinionated speech concerning the things I understood about the matters we were discussing. The tone was so hostile that I surprised even me. I found myself straining the gnats of particular details and yet swallowing the camel of my unkind presentation. All who were observing the conversation looked like a bomb had just gone off, and they weren't sure what to do or how to respond, and rightfully so. One of my poor friends tried to rescue the unsuspecting listeners and me by reminding me that I had children to pick up, and maybe I should get going. Bless her heart! After awakening from my opinionated induced rant, I spent the rest of the morning trying to do some damage control, if that was possible, by way of sincere apology to which much grace was given.
An Example From Moses
This experience reminded me of an Old Testament event. During the wilderness journey, God's people became disgruntled and complained that they were not adequately cared for because there was no water. God asked Moses to speak to a rock to bring forth water for the people. Instead of speaking to the rock as instructed, Moses thought that it would be more effective to angrily express his underlying personal frustrations and took the opportunity to yell at the people in an accusatory fashion.
So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.
— James 1:19-20
Moses incidentally exalted himself by implying that somehow it was his ability and responsibility to bring them water from a rock.
“Hear now, you rebels! Must we bring water for you out of this rock?"
— Numbers 20:10
The Love chapter came to mind as well, in conviction and reference to this
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal . . . though I have . . . all knowledge . . . but have not love, I am nothing.
— I Corinthians 13:1-3
as well as
Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.
— I Corinthians 8:1
The Pharisee (religious zeal) is the opposite of a Sadducee (religious compromise), but neither is pleasing to God. When loyalty is not tempered with love, and when love is not tempered with loyalty, it always becomes not about God and all about us. Both extremes are blind guides that lead us into the ditch, making us an ineffective witness of whatever we are trying to communicate.
I hope to encourage all to glean from this Biblical observance the blessed lessons of rededicating the temple of our lives to the only Light of the world so that we might illuminate Him to a lost and dark world. May we keep our lamps filled with the oil of the Holy Spirit as well as be thankful always for His deliverance and miracles.
May we also maintain loyalty to God that is tempered with all the mercy, love, warmth, and acceptance that He has given and shown to us.
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind . . . ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
May we love people with all faithfulness to God as He has shown Himself faithful to us.
With my mouth will I make known Your faithfulness to all generations.
— Psalm 89:1
© 2013 Tamarajo