Each year as winter approaches and we prepare to celebrate the birth of the King of the Jews, we often remain oblivious to the companion holiday of the season, Hanukkah. Although overshadowed by Christmas, The Festival of Lights graphically illuminates the Messiah’s life and ministry.
Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration beginning each year on the 25th of the Jewish month Kislev, which usually falls in December. It celebrates Jewish religious freedom and commemorates the revolt by the Maccabbees against the Syrian Greeks in 167-164 BC. Although commonly known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah actually means Dedication. The Jews liberated the Temple and rededicated it to the service of God.
It is not commonly realized that this holiday is found within the pages of Scripture. Jesus celebrated Hanukkah as recorded in John 10:22.
22Now it was the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) in Jerusalem, and it was winter. 23And Jesus walked in the temple, in Solomon’s porch. 24Then the Jews surrounded Him and said to Him, “How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
It was on Hanukkah that Christ publicly revealed his Messianic identity by proclaiming to them,
30 “ I and the Father are One.”
The events of Hanukkah are relayed within the apocryphal books of 1 and 2 Maccabbees. Upon Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BC, his kingdom split into four pieces, ruled by different dynasties. The Seleucid dynasty ruled Syria and is the slice of Alexander’s kingdom pie which controlled the land of Israel, in those days called Judea.
In 171 BC, a ruler ascended named Antiochus 4th, called Epiphanes, which means the manifest God. Antiochus Epiphanes’ passionate goal was to unify his kingdom, including Judea, into one monolithic Hellenistic (Greek) culture. And so began a massive struggle between cultures: Judaism vs. Hellenism.
Antiochus believed that the Jewish religion was the obstacle standing in the way of Hellenism’s acceptance, so he made the practice of Judaism a capital offense. Ritual prostitution was established in the Temple. Possession of the Hebrew Scriptures was outlawed. Whole families of Jews were executed for their observance of the Sabbath and circumcision. A number of families who were discovered to have circumcised their sons were crucified with those babies hung around their necks. Thousands of martyrs were made.
In 167 BC Antiochus Epiphanes marched to Jerusalem, entered the Temple and ransacked it. Antiochus set up an image of his god, Zeus. On the sacred Temple altar, he sacrificed a pig.
In the Judean village of Modiin, the people were assembled in the town square by Syrian Greek soldiers. An altar was built, and the old priest Mattathias was ordered to sacrifice a pig for the townspeople to eat. Mattathias refused to defile himself or his people. The soldiers insisted, offering great financial incentive.
Finally, another man from the village volunteered to collaborate with the Syrian Greeks. As the man approached the pig, Mattathias suddenly ran forward and assassinated the collaborator. The five sons of Mattathias drew their weapons, struck down the soldiers, and headed for the hills. They were joined by many fellow revolutionaries, and so began a lopsided revolt against the mighty Syrian Greek Empire.
Soon after, the leadership of the ragtag Jewish army passed to Mattathias’ son, Judah, nicknamed the Hammer, or in Hebrew, Maccabbee. Thereafter, the revolutionaries were known as The Maccabbees.
After three years of Jewish guerilla warfare, the rebels achieved victory. On the 25 of Kislev, 164 BC, exactly three years from Antiochus’ abomination of desolation, the Maccabbees triumphantly entered the defiled and half-demolished Temple. They then began the process of rededication.
The undying, eternal flame of the TempleMenorah, the great seven-branched candelabra so central to the worship of Israel, had been extinguished. The Greeks had desecrated nearly allof the sacred oil used for the TempleMenorah. Only a small container remained, containing a one day supply. It would take eight days for the priests to consecrate more oil. Nevertheless, although all they had was enough oil for just one day, the Maccabbees lit the Menorah.
The Menorah burned for one day. Then a miracle occurred. The Menorah kept burning for eight full days. Judah Maccabbee declared that these events would be commemorated by an annual holiday, Hanukkah, the Feast of Dedication.
Understandably, the people also called it Hag ha Urim – the Festival of Lights. As the holiday became popular, a tradition of lighting miniature menorahs began within Jewish homes during the eight-day celebration. These special menorahs had eight branches, one candle for each evening of the holiday, with an additional ninth branch elevated in the center. This center candle is known as the shamash, Hebrew for servant, which is used to light the other candles as they are added each evening.
The Undying Flame
As we prepare for the celebration of Christmas and make a mad rush toward the Bethlehem manger, let us pause for a moment at the menorah and contemplate its meaning. When we look at the menorah, we see a beautiful portrait of our Messiah. Each candle is specially lit by the shamash, the servant candle. Scripture teaches us that Jesus is God’s shamash – the servant of the Lord. And this shamash is the Light of that World. The true light which came into the world and illuminates us all. He is the true eternal and undying flame, which spreads its light one candle at a time, until all are enlightened.
And it is the light of the world, the shamash, the one who in the Temple boldly declared His divine identity, who is the true Epiphanes, the manifest God. Antiochus Epiphanes was simply a cheap counterfeit whose flame sputtered briefly and then died out.
The rededication of the Temple was a turning point in Jewish history. But that magnificent Temple no longer stands. The New Testament teaches that each one of us – each individual illuminated by the Shamash, is now the Temple of God. How can we dedicate or rededicate this personal Temple of God?
The answer is found in the two prominent symbols of Hanukkah, light and oil. Do we let our light so shine before men that they glorify our father in heaven? Or do we choose to hide our light under a bushel? No! We’re going to let it shine!
How is our oil burning? Sometimes an oil change is necessary. Or perhaps we are simply a quart low. Maybe we feel like all we have left is one day’s supply. We recall the tune, “give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning…” It is reassuring to remember that the Bible teaches that more oil is always available when the undying flame has been ignited in our souls.
Let us focus on the menorah, and remember that we have been illuminated by the Shamash, the Servant, and have an eternal supply of oil to keep the Undying Flame burning brightly in our hearts throughout the year.