Hanukkah, the Festival of Light

Gordon Franz

Miniature depicting menorah in Zechariah's vision. Cervera Bible, Spain, 1300.


As a young boy, I remember well the excitement as the Christmas season approached. There was snow on the ground, sleigh riding, Christmas trees and caroling, manger scenes and eggnog. Yet I also remember another holiday which my Jewish friends celebrated about the same time, Hanukkah In elementary school they would play with their dreidels and tell about the presents they received the previous night. I must confess my greedy jealousy. They got presents for eight nights and we only got them on Christmas morning!

This year our Jewish friends will commence celebrating Hanukkah from sundown on Dec. 23 until sundown on the 31st Families will gather together to exchange presents and also to light a new candle each night on their nine branch candelabrum.

The Origin of Hanukkah

Hanukkah is a festival which commemorates the purification and rededication of the Temple by Judas Maccabeus on Kislev 25, 165 BC (usually in December) . Three years prior, Antiochus IV, the Seleucid (Syrian) king, defiled the Temple by erecting an idol to Baal Shamen (Zeus) , sacrificing a pig on the altar and proclaiming himself to be a god. Some of the coins he minted had his features on the face of Zeus along with the words "Theus Epiphanes" meaning "the god manifest." He also decreed that Torah (the Law of God) could not be studied under penalty of death, circumcision was forbidden and the Sabbath was not to be kept. This brought an internal struggle within Judaism out in the open. On the one hand there were the observant Jews who wanted to keep Torah, and on the other, the Hellenized Jews who wanted to assimilate into the Greek culture around them and become "born again" Greeks!

Antiochus sent troops from village to village with a statue of himself ordering people to bow down to it One day they arrived in the village of Modi'im. An elderly man stepped forward to comply with the order, but an observant priest, Mattathias of the Hasmonean family, thrust him through with a spear and also killed one of the Seleucid soldiers. Thus began the Maccabean revolt Mattathias, his five sons and others fled into the Gophna Hills and conducted a guerrilla war against the Seleucids for three years. Finally, Jerusalem was liberated yet the Temple was defiled. The history of this revolt is found in I Maccabees 1 and 4 and II Maccabees 6 and 10.

The Rabbis recount the miracle of Hanukkah in these terms; "On Kislev 25 begin the Hanukka days, eight of them...When the Greeks entered the Temple Sanctuary, they contaminated all the oil. When the Hasmoneans defeated them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil bearing the High Priest's seal. This cruse had enough oil of only one day's burning, but a miracle came to pass and it lasted eight days. The following year, these days were declared a holiday to be celebrated with the saying of Hallel and thanksgiving prayers." (Megillat Taanit) This is the reason they light one additional candle each night on their candelabrum.

Jesus Celebrates Hanukkah

The Lord Jesus observed the celebration of Hanukkah in the Temple during the winter of AD 29 (John 10:22-39). Just prior to this account, two "illustrations" (10:6) of Jesus as the Good Shepherd (10:1-5 and 10:7-10) were given and then Jesus' interpretation of these parables (l0:11-18)

The Jewish reader would immediately pick up the messianic connotation of this discourse. The Davidic Messiah would be a Shepherd (Ezek. 34).

As He walked through Solomon's porch on the east side of the Temple enclosure, some Jews approached Him and asked Him point blank, "Are you the Messiah?" (10:24). Jesus had to be careful how He answered that question. During the festival, throngs of Jews caught up in the nationalistic fever, were visiting Jerusalem. The word "Messiah" might spark off riots because of its heavy nationalistic and political overtones.

Roman intelligence, headquartered in the Antonia Fortress to the northwest of the Temple, was aware of a popular song entitled "A Psalm of Solomon, with Song, to the King." In this song, composed during the mid-first century BC by a Pharisee, the Lord was acknowledged as king and a Davidic ruler would reign forever. He describes how the latter Hasmonean rulers led the people away from the Torah and the people were punished by the Romans under the leadership of Pompey. He prays that the Lord will raise up a king, the Son of David, to rule over Israel. In so doing, this king would "destroy the unrighteous rulers," "purge Jerusalem from Gentiles , " "drive out the sinners," "smash the arrogance of sinners," and "destroy the unlawful nations'" All this would be done by their king, the Lord Messiah' (Psalms of Solomon 17). If Jesus answered the question "yes", the Roman authorities would have arrested Him on the spot for insurrection.

Jesus does, however, answer the question in the affirmative, but not directly. When He answers, He is careful not to use the contemporary term and understanding. After pointing out the security which a believer in the Lord Jesus has because of faith in Him, He says "I and my Father are one'" (10:30). That statement had heavy religious overtones for the festival which they were presently celebrating. Those gathered on the Temple Mount recalled the events nearly 200 years before on the very mount where, Antiochus IV, a mere man, proclaimed himself god. Jesus, the LORD manifest in human flesh, made the same claim but His claim was true. The Jews picked up stones to stone Him for blasphemy because, in their thinking, He was a man who made Himself God (10:31-33). Jesus declared that He was the fulfillment of Hanukkah by saying the Father "sanctified" the Son of God and sent Him into the world (10:34-36), The Father was in Him and He in the Father (10:38). If the Greek word "sanctified" was translated into Hebrew, it would be "dedication" or Hanukkah

A Biblical Perspective

John wrote his gospel primarily to a Jewish and Samaritan audience, One of the unique things about John's gospel is his emphasis on the Jewish and Samaritan festivals and his indication that Jesus was the fulfillment of these holidays. Hanukkah was the rededication of a defiled Temple. At the beginning of Jesus public ministry, He said, "'Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. Then the Jews said, 'It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?' But He was speaking of the temple of His body" (2:19-21) Herod' s Temple had been defiled by a wicked and corrupt priesthood. The Lord Jesus was "sanctified" by His death, burial and resurrection and is the New Temple.

The Apostle John selected "signs" (miracles) and events when he penned his gospel, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to convey two purposes (John 20:30,31). The first was to present the deity of the Lord Jesus. John skillfully selects the Hanukkah event because of the festival impact on the crowd. In contrast to the arrogant and blasphemous statement by Antiochus IV, Jesus truly is God manifest in human flesh. The second purpose was to challenge people to put their trust (believe) in the Lord Jesus Christ as the One who died for their sins and rose again from the dead. When they trust Him, God gives them the gift of eternal life, forgiveness of sins and a home in Heaven. There seems to be a marked contrast between the response of the Jews on the Temple Mount (10:37-39) and those "beyond the Jordan" who believed on Him (10:40-42). What is your response? Have you trusted the One who is the fulfillment of Hanukkah?

Happy Hanukkah, Hanukka, Chanukah!

Kislev 5758 (1997)


Gordon Franz