Jesus by Menorah Light

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Growing up in a Gentile, Christian home I never knew anything about Hanukkah. I was far too focused on Christmas traditions (and presents!) to pay attention to why Jewish folks didn’t do the same things. Though eight days of presents sounded intriguing, that’s about all I knew or cared for Hanukkah. Until, that is, I began to understand that as an observant Jew, Jesus celebrated all the Jewish holidays, even the ones that weren’t required in the Old Testament. And since I did care about Jesus, this eventually caught my attention:

“At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly’” (John 10:22–24).

Once I learned that the “Feast of Dedication” was the same thing as Hanukkah, I had questions! What was Hanukkah? Why did Jews of Jesus’ day celebrate a holiday that wasn’t required in the Torah? Why did Jesus travel all the way to Jerusalem to be there for it? Should Christians know more about Hanukkah?

I believe that a Christian, in light of Jesus’ teaching at Hanukkah in John 10, can understand Him and His ministry just a little bit better by knowing this ancient Jewish holiday.

The Making of a Holiday

Many of my American Jewish friends joke that every Jewish holiday can be stripped down to this basic description:

“They tried to kill us; we won; now let’s EAT!”

I believe that a Christian, in light of Jesus’ teaching at Hanukkah in John 10, can understand Him and His ministry just a little bit better by knowing this ancient Jewish holiday.

It’s funny because it’s very close to the truth about how central delicious traditional foods are to Jewish celebrations. Jewish holidays are tasty holidays!

But the first half of that saying is surprisingly true, too. Many Jewish holidays, ancient and modern, were born out of someone’s attempt to destroy the Jewish people. Repeatedly throughout history Jewish people have been threatened with annihilation. If you study the shocking history of persecutions, ghettos, expulsions, and pogroms (not to mention the Holocaust) that the Jewish people have suffered—only to be reestablished again and again—then you’ll know why they celebrate so lavishly! Hanukkah is no exception.

You may have heard the basic story of Hanukkah’s history. The Greeks had conquered and dominated much of the world, including Israel in the 2nd century BC. They intentionally spread their cultural influence to make all people become Greek, a process we now call Hellenization. Many Jews didn’t Hellenize very easily. In response, one Greek ruler from Syria named Antiochus went so far as to outlaw all Jewish worship practices. He even sacrificed a pig to a Greek god on the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem. All to try to destroy Jewish culture, worship, and identity. 

But when Jewish freedom fighters (the Maccabees) finally defeated the Greeks in 164 BC and took control of the Temple in Jerusalem, they rededicated the Temple complex and reinstituted the daily sacrifices prescribed in the Law. They also relit the lampstands in the Temple and held a belated eight-day celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, which had been neglected for three years. But according to rabbinic sources, they only had enough consecrated oil to burn the lamps for one day, not the required eight days of the celebration. Since the lamps were supposed to burn continuously (Leviticus 24:3), and it took time to consecrate more, it was a miracle that God performed to make one day’s worth of oil burn for eight whole days—according to the rabbis, that is.

Interestingly, the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote around 150 years before the rabbis did, gives some indication that the story of the oil may have been a myth invented by the rabbis. He called the celebration the “Festival of Lights,” but not because of the oil and lamp light. Josephus claimed that the reason Jews celebrated it in Jesus’s day was because it commemorated the return of Jews’ freedom to worship at the Temple. The “light” according to Josephus was worship, freedom to worship God, blazing zealously in Jerusalem once again.

Jesus and Hanukkah

That’s all very interesting, you might say, but so what? Why does it matter that Jesus celebrated Hanukkah, whether it was celebrated for the miracle of oil or for the rededication of the Temple?

I would argue that Jesus’ words in John 10 shine much brighter when we understand that He spoke them during the celebration of Hanukkah. During the time when Israel remembered the glorious days of revolt against Greeks and their influence, the people celebrated their only brief time of freedom since the exile. They revered the religiously zealous warrior priests who freed them and called them to wholeheartedly follow God. The message of Hanukkah in Jesus’ day was that Israel should uncompromisingly live as God’s people, worshiping God alone at the Temple. It was about purity in Temple worship and freedom from oppression by Gentiles.

The message of Hanukkah in Jesus’ day was that Israel should uncompromisingly live as God’s people, worshiping God alone at the Temple.

This was the mindset of the people of Israel when Jesus walked through the beautiful colonnade in the Temple court. The people were itching for freedom and spoiling for a fight. Don’t their words sound more poignant knowing this?

“How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

If you are the Messiah, make it clear! Set us free. Just like the Maccabees did! We want to be free of Gentile oppression and influence. We’ll follow you into battle if you’d just tell everyone plainly who you are! 

But then Jesus did something unexpected. He took His listeners’ Hanukkah priorities and refocused them on Himself.

What exactly were these “Hanukkah priorities,” you ask? 

Well, first, they wanted freedom from oppression; they wanted the Messiah to overthrow Rome and its influence, just like the Maccabees did with the Greeks. Second, they wanted the Messiah to proclaim that the Temple and zealous religious observance was the “light” to the world of what it means to worship God (which was their understanding of “the reason for the Hanukkah season” so to speak).

Jesus’ response to their priorities was one central truth: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).

That means He was the anointed one (Messiah) of God.
That means everything He did proved who He was (v. 25).
That means that true worship is centered on Him (v. 27).
That means that only His influence and voice matter (vv. 26–27).
That means that nothing will shake those who know and listen to Him (vv. 28–29).
That means that the true Light, which gives light to everyone, had come into the world (1:9).

The light He offered was a perfect unbreakable connection to God through Him, not strict religious formulas.

Jesus stripped away all their priorities and their agendas, for both the holiday and Messiah, and pointed the Jewish people toward Himself as the reason to celebrate. The life He offered was true, eternal freedom, not a temporary change in politics. The light He offered was a perfect unbreakable connection to God through Him, not strict religious formulas.

According to Jesus, the focus of the Festival of Lights should be the light and life that only He, the Son of God, offers. That is the true fulfillment of all the longing of the Jewish people, and Gentiles, too. He’s the reason for the Hanukkah season.

And when you strip it down to the “They tried to kill us; we won; now let’s eat” version, you might say it like this:

We were dead in our trespasses and sins until…
Jesus snatched us into victory.
Now let’s eat!

Do you hear His voice, the Messiah who has come to give light and life?

If you do, then you have every reason to celebrate, no matter what month, festival, day, or season. We know God by His grace through Messiah Jesus’ work to save us and set us free. What an incredible truth! 

How will you celebrate this December?

About the Author

Dan Price

Dan is the Assistant to the Director of International Ministries for The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry.

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