Hanukkah is upon us again. For many Christians this holiday has little to no significance, at least not like Easter or Christmas. Hanukkah has never worked its way into mainstream Christian social culture.
Last year around this time I explored how one significant Old Testament prophecy (in Daniel 11) points to the historical events that inspired Hanukkah. The prophecy foretells of a brave band of Jews whose love for God inspire them to take action against the ungodly influences that were defiling God’s temple. As such, Hanukkah is a festival of remembrance about the importance of taking a stand against idolatry.
This year I want to look at a New Testament passage about Hanukkah.
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The history of Hanukkah revolves around one of the Syrian-Greco kings, Antiochus IV, and the band of Jewish radicals who opposed him.
In 175 B.C. Antiochus IV ascends to the throne of the Seleucid Empire which controls Palestine, among many other areas of the world. This empire is dedicated to bringing Greek culture and customs to the nations they conquer, especially among the Jews. Antiochus wants to “civilize” the Jews into a Greek way of life.
On a Sabbath day in December 168 B.C., Antiochus IV enters Jerusalem with 22,000 soldiers and attacks the city, killing tens of thousands of men, women and children. He loots the gold in the temple and burns much of the city. He offers a pig on the altar of God, desecrating it with unclean blood in honor of the Greek god, Zeus. He pours the broth from the cooked pig over the Torah scrolls and sets up a statue of Zeus in the temple (which bears a striking resemblance to Antiochus himself).
Rather than merely submitting to these atrocities, a certain band of zealous Jews refuse to worship the Greek gods. They form a guerrilla army to take back the city. Yudah ha Makkabi, “Judah the Hammer,” leads this band of radicals to make repeated attacks against the Seleucid army. Later these men become known as the Maccabeans.
Three years later after the desecration the Maccabbeans take back Jerusalem and rededicate the temple to God (hence, the festival is also named the “Feast of Dedication”).
According to tradition, when Judah rededicates the Temple there is only one vessel of sanctified oil available—only enough for one day to burn the sacred lamp. But by some miracle, it burns for eight days, until more oil can be prepared. Today, in honor of this miracle and the men who took back the temple, Jewish people around the world kindle the menorah for eight days. It has since become known also as the “Festival of Lights.”
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Jesus and Hanukkah
One winter Jesus is visiting Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Dedication (a.k.a. Hanukkah). Crowds are gathered in the temple colonnade to seek refuge from the colder winds, and Jesus is there among them.
Picture the spirit of this festival: there are possibly hundreds of thousands of faithful Jews gathering in the city to celebrate and remember the last time their people were truly free from foreign oppression. Though they are now living in the shadow of Roman domination, God’s people remember the victories of their ancestors against Antiochus’ army. National pride swells in the city of Jerusalem this week.
Suddenly Jesus finds himself being interrogated: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” (John 10:24). The crowds have no doubt heard the rumors about Jesus: the miracles, the powerful teaching, and the large following He has. They may have heard about John the Baptist hailing Jesus as the Christ (3:28). His own disciples certainly believe it (1:41; 6:69). The religious leaders have already commanded: if any proclaim Jesus to be the Christ, they shall be put out of the synagogue (9:22). These crowds want to hear from Jesus’ own mouth: is he really the Christ?
Perhaps some want to know if he will be their Messianic deliverer. Will he pick up the hammer of Judah and smash the Roman oppressors? Many others have no such hope about Jesus: they are just looking for Him to say something that will give them an excuse to kill Him.
Jesus makes this startling statement to them:
“I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:25-30).
Jesus rarely made explicit, public claims to be the Messiah, but here Jesus says that all his great and miraculous works implicitly point to His special authority from God to give eternal life. He truly is God’s Anointed. Jesus and His Father are so dedicated to this mutual work of eternally blessing and guarding His followers, that He makes this powerful statement: “I and the Father are one.” Jesus and His Father are one in purpose, one in mind, one in heart, one in work, and one in essence.
The crowds immediately know the implications of Jesus’ statement and they pick up stones to kill him: “You, being a man, make yourself God” (John 10:33).
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Jesus: God Manifest
The feast of Hanukkah brings out the irony of the claim Jesus made that day. When Antiochus assumed the throne, he called himself Antiochus “Epiphanes,” meaning “the visible god,” or “god manifest.” Doing what no other Greek king had done before, Antiochus exalted himself as a deity.
Imagine it: Jesus is standing in the very temple Antiochus had desecrated nearly 200 years prior. He is surrounded by patriotic Jews who are celebrating their victory over a wicked man who had exalted himself as a god. And in that moment Jesus chooses to say that He is God. No wonder this excites and angers the crowds to the point of violence.
For Christians, Hanukkah not only commemorates a time when God’s people took a stand against idolatry, against a false image of God—it also commemorates a time when Jesus boldly proclaims Himself to be the true image of God. Hanukkah serves as a dual reminder to God’s people: (1) like the Maccabeans we must zealously remove any false gods from our midst, and (2) as sheep of the Good Shepherd we must feverishly cling to Christ as the image of the true God.
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Meditating on Christ’s Beautiful Works
Christmas and Hanukkah have more in common than merely being around the same time of year. In some way they point to the same reality. Hanukkah celebrates the expulsion of a false, incarnate god. Christmas celebrates the birth of the true incarnate Deity.
But in our heart of hearts, do we believe it? Do we believe that Jesus was right when he said, “I and the Father are one”? Such belief is a tall order. For most this belief stretches the imagination to the breaking point: how can we be sure Jesus was divine?
Jesus says to the crowds that day, “I have shown you many good works from the Father…Even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (10:32a, 38).
These are the tender words of a shepherd drawing his sheep. Certainly there were many present that day who had no interest in following Christ: their hearts are bent to ridding the nation of Him. But amidst ravenous wolves, with their loud shouts and upraised stones, Jesus still calls out to the true sheep among them to believe in Him.
He tells them: If you can’t believe in me, look at my works. He calls them His “good” works. In the original language this word means “beautiful” or “excellent.” Jesus says, My beautiful works are the signs pointing to My Oneness with the Father.
If we are going to worship God as He truly is, then we must be wholeheartedly captivated by the revelation God has given us of Himself—His revelation in Christ. This kind of faith comes by meditating on Christ’s beautiful, miraculous works. The apostle John tells us that Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, “but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
Let’s look at these beautiful works in John’s Gospel:
- Jesus brought great joy to a wedding feast by miraculously providing the guests with a hundred gallons of the best wine (John 2:6-11).
- Jesus proclaimed a simple word of healing, and at that very hour, miles away, a young boy was cured of his life-threatening illness (John 4:46-54).
- Jesus spoke a word of healing to an invalid, and he suddenly rose and walked after being crippled 38 long years (John 5:2-8).
- The crowds exploded with joy when Jesus somehow multiplied five loaves of bread and two fish to feed over 5000 people (John 6:1-14).
- Jesus walked three miles on the surface of the Sea of Galilee amidst a raging storm (John 6:16-21).
- A man felt unstoppable excitement when, after being born blind, he was suddenly able to see again after Jesus healed his eyes (John 9:1-7).
- The crowds were shocked as Jesus commanded death to flee when Lazarus, four days dead, emerged from his tomb (John 11).
- All throughout his ministry, Jesus seemed to know people more intimately than they knew themselves—in their deepest heart (John 1:45-51; 4:16-19).
- The Father’s own voice thundered from heaven to answer His Son’s prayer and was heard by the crowds in Jerusalem (John 12:27-30).
- Jesus spoke such powerful words that armed men drew back and fell to the ground (John 18:6).
- Jesus fearlessly predicted his own death and resurrection in the face of ruthless opposition (John 2:19). He foretold the betrayal of Judas (John 13:21) and the denials of Peter (John 13:36-38). He foretold His ascension to heaven and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit (John 14:25-29).
- Jesus fulfilled centuries-old prophecies in his crucifixion (John 19:23-37).
- And last, Jesus rose from the dead and stood before before marveling disciples, showing them his pierced hands and feet (John 20:19-28).
Meditate on these beautiful, miraculous works and allow them to nurture your faith, allow them to captivate your heart, and then lift your hands to God in worship.
“Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25)
Thanks for the history of Hanukkah! It was very interesting, I actually never looked it up…