The Roots of Chanukkah
In 165BC, Judah Maccabee led a force of Jewish fighters who took the city of Jerusalem from under the control of the Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes. Antiochus had tried to force the Jews to leave their customs and cease to obey the Mosaic Law in order to conform to the Greek society of the day. Many of those Jews who opposed him were killed. In order to destroy the Jewish religious practice, Antiochus desecrated the temple in Jerusalem by sacrificing pigs on its altar. He then made it into a house of worship to the Greek god Zeus.
After Antiochus desecrated the temple, a priest named Mattathias and his five sons rose up in rebellion against him. Their family name was Hasmonean but they came to be known as the Maccabees, a name that means Hammer. They certainly were used as the Hammer of God against Antiochus. Though poorly armed and greatly outnumbered, they won battle after battle against the superior Syrian forces. Though Mattathias did not live to see it, shortly after his death his son Judas entered the city as a victor.
Judas spent several months cleansing the temple and its environs. He then proclaimed the 25th of Kislev as the beginning of a holy feast given to the rededication of the temple for the priestly service. This date marked the third anniversary from the time the temple was originally desecrated by Antiochus. Though the calendars do not match perfectly, the eight day feast of Hanukkah generally corresponds to the Christmas season.
Almost everyone knows what Chanukkah is. Every year we see it right alongside of Christmas. But few Christians know anything about Chanukkah, and even fewer know the connections between Chanukkah and the Messiah, Jesus. As I have studied the subject over the course of the last year, I have come to the realization that Chanukkah is far more important than we (Christians) give it credit for.
The Chanukkah Story (in brief)
Everyone is familiar with the image to the left. It’s a menorah. It symbolizes and epitomizes the Chanukkah story. But many may not know the story. Knowing the story is important and so I will share an abbreviated version with you here. When the first temple was destroyed around 580 BC, the Jews were exiled to Babylon just as Jeremiah foretold. After 70 years they were allowed to come back and so many of them did. They rebuilt the temple (Neh. 8) but they were still under foreign oppression. Eventually around 322 BC, Alexander the Great came through and conquered the area including Judea. When Alexander died at a young age his massive empire splits into four parts. Israel happened to be located right between the Syrian and Egyptian Greek sub-empires and was fought over heavily for the next 200 years. It eventually came under the control of the Seleucids based in Syria. Then around 171 BC Antiochus IV came to power, calling himself “Antiochus Theos Epiphanies” or just “Antiochus Epiphanies” for short, which meant “Antiochus, the visible god”. The Jews (with that classic Jewish humor) nicknamed him “Antiochus Epiminese” which means “Antiochus the Crazy One”. In 168 BC, Antiochus went to the temple where he erected a statue of Zeus and sacrificed pigs on the sacred altar, thus defiling the temple. He furthermore outlawed Judaism and killed anyone found to be keeping the Sabbath, circumscribing their children, eating Kosher, etc. The Jews rose up and kicked out the pagan Greeks, led by the Maccabees (which means “The Hammer”), most prominently by a man named Judah. Three years later, in the winter time, on 25 Kislev, they rededicated the altar. They lit the sacred lamp but only had enough oil for one day but it took eight days to consecrate more oil! And so they burned the oil anyway and miraculously it lasted all eight days until more oil could be consecrated.
The Chanukkah menorah thus symbolizes this miracle that took place for eight days in the temple. This is why it has eight branches. The candle in the middle is called the shamash(servant) and is lit first, and then used to light the other candles. Since the story of Chanukkah is directly connected to the Jewish rebellion and consequent freedom, it is also a time of intense patriotism. From 167 AD and onwards it became something similar to America’s 4th of July. It was a time for remembering freedom, the sacrifice of others, and thanksgiving to God for freedom from pagans. Once they came under pagan rule again, it became a time of remembering past freedom and begging God to give them their freedom once again.
Jesus and Chanukkah
Okay, so you may be thinking “well, this is nice and all, but it’s not in the Bible. So how do we know it’s true? Or why should we celebrated it? And what does this have to do with Jesus?” Those are good questions which I will now answer. Chanukkah celebrates the dedication of the purified and cleansed temple somewhere close to 165 BC, and by knowing this simple fact we find that Jesus celebrated Chanukkah.
It was on Chanukkah that Christ publicly revealed his Messianic identity by proclaiming to them, “I and the Father are One.” –John 10:30
Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. The Jews gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” –John 10:22-24
First notice that they want to know if Jesus is the Messiah because they think he might kick out the pagans and set up his kingdom just like Judah Maccabee did over a hundred years prior. It was their “4th of July” and they were ready for independence. The second thing to notice is that Jesus was at the Feast of Dedication. The title of the Rabbi’s sermon on Shabbat Chanukkah was “Chanukkah means Dedication”. So immediately we see that Jesus not only celebrated Chanukkah but made the effort to be at the temple during this time, even though it was not required. If it was good enough for our master to celebrate a non-compulsory feast, why not for us too? You think that I could make this argument with anything related to Judaism, such as animal sacrifices, but I cannot, and the reason is that celebrating Chanukkah was not required but rather Jesus chose to celebrate it. Since he chose to celebrate it, I think it would be quite appropriate for us to also choose to do the same.
Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” –John 10:25-30
Immediately the Jews’ minds would have been filled with the stories of Antiochus “Theos Epiphanies” who declared himself the manifestation of Zeus! Their reaction would have been swift, and indeed the very next verse tells us as much.
Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” “We are not stoning you for any of these,” replied the Jews, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” –John 10:31-33
And indeed, declaring yourself to be God is blasphemy and punishable by death. What will Jesus say to combat these accusations of blasphemy?
Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’ [Psalm 82:6]? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and the Scripture cannot be broken— what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” Again they tried to seize him, but he escaped their grasp. –John 10:34-39 (source for the Psalms quotation has been added by me)
What does this even mean? There is a footnote in some translations at the words “set apart” which reads “or, dedicated.” So Jesus, speaking during the Feast of Dedication, asks the Jews about the one whom the Father dedicated? It was during that time, but several hundred years before, that the Jews re-dedicated the temple after a man declared himself to be “the manifest god” (Zeus) and desecrated the temple, and now a man was coming and claiming also to be the manifestation of God and that just as they had dedicated the temple, God had dedicated him. Wow, what a claim!
Another name for Chanukkah is “The Festival of Lights” and indeed the central focus of those lights comes from the menorah.
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” –John 8:12
Jesus is the light of the world, symbolized by the menorah, but even more specifically Jesus is the central light from which the other lights are lit.
“…the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve…” –Matt. 20:28
Just as the candles on the menorah must be lit by the shamash (servant) candle, so too must you be lit by the servant, Jesus the Messiah, before burning bright in the world as a light to others. If you are lit by the servant, your fire will be a copy of His, and your light that guides others to Jesus will be in the form of serving one another. This was Jesus’ message for his disciples.
“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” –John 13:14
May you be lit by the light of the world, and may the fire of your serving others burn brightly to light the way for others to come to know Messiah Jesus.
Peace to you!
Source material from David Reagan