This feast is also frequently called the Festival of Lights or the Feast of the Maccabees. But as mentioned in John 10, the word Hanukkah means “dedication.” On the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah begins on the evening of Kislev 25 and continues for eight days. On the Gregorian calendar (our modern calendar), it can start as early as late November, but generally coincides with the month of December. Hanukkah in 2020 runs from December 10–18.
The Historical Background
In 168 BC, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the king of the Seleucids (the Syrian portion of the Greek Empire), invaded Judea, outlawed the Jewish religion, and ordered the Jews to worship Greek gods. Later in that year, his soldiers descended upon Jerusalem, massacring thousands of people. In 167 BC, he personally entered the Second Temple (built under the governorship of Zerubbabel) and then desecrated it by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs within its sacred walls.
Led by the Jewish priest Mattathias and his five sons, a large-scale rebellion broke out against Antiochus IV and the Seleucids. When Mattathias died in 166 BC, his son Judah, known as Judah Maccabee (which means “the Hammer”), took over the rebellion, and within two years (165 BC) the Jews had successfully driven the Seleucids out of Jerusalem. But because the Temple had been desecrated and profaned, they needed time to clean it and rededicate it to the Lord. In later accounts, we read of a “miracle” regarding the lamp oil which took place right after the Temple was cleansed.
The Miracle of the Oil
The “miracle” of the one-day supply of oil miraculously lasting eight days is first described in the Talmud (Jewish traditions written about AD 200–AD 500), which says that after the forces of Antiochus IV had been defeated and the Temple recovered, the Maccabees discovered that almost all of the ritual olive oil had been profaned.
The original account is told in the apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees 4:36–59, although no mention is made of the “miracle of the oil,” just the actual cleansing and rededication of the Temple. Since this miracle is not recorded in Scripture, we cannot be completely sure of its authenticity. However, it is very similar to two other miracles recorded in 1 Kings 17:12–16 and 2 Kings 4:1–7, so there is certainly biblical precedent for God performing such a miracle. The “miracle” of the one-day supply of oil miraculously lasting eight days is first described in the Talmud (Jewish traditions written about AD 200–AD 500), which says that after the forces of Antiochus IV had been defeated and the Temple recovered, the Maccabees discovered that almost all of the ritual olive oil had been profaned.1 They found only a single container that was still sealed by the High Priest, with enough oil to keep the menorah in the Temple lit for only a day. They had no choice but to use it, yet it burned for eight days (until new oil was pressed and made ready). The “Megillath Antiochus” (usually dated to the first or second century AD) describes it this way:
The Hasmoneans entered the sanctuary, rebuilt its gates, closed the breaches and cleansed the Temple court from the slain and from the impurities. They looked for pure olive oil to light the Menorah, and found only one bottle with the seal of the High Priest so that they were sure of its purity. Though its quantity seemed sufficient only for one day’s lighting it lasted for eight days owing to the blessing of the God of heaven who had established his name there. Hence the Hasmoneans and all the Jews alike instituted these eight days as a time of feasting and rejoicing, like any festival prescribed in the Torah; and of kindling lights to commemorate the victories God had given them.2
The Celebration of Hanukkah in Jesus’ Time
Since the rededication of the Second Temple and the “miracle” of the oil lasting for eight days, both centered around the Temple, it was only fitting that the celebration and festivities involved the Temple as well. In the late First Century AD, Josephus records some detail about how the Festival of Lights was celebrated from the time of the Maccabees up to when the Temple was destroyed in AD 70:
Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days; and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon: but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that hence was the name given to that festival. Judas also rebuilt the walls around the city, and reared towers of great height against the incursions of enemies, and set guards therein. He also fortified the city of Bethsura, that it might serve as a citadel against any distresses that might come from our enemies.3
It appears that the main focus of the festival during the time of Jesus’ incarnation was the singing of psalms, feasting with friends and family, going to the Temple or local synagogue to hear Scripture read and to give thanks to God for the freedom to worship him and for his deliverance from the hand of Israel’s enemies. It also probably included the ceremonial lighting of candles or oil lamps at the synagogue and in homes.
The mention of Jesus being at the Temple for the Feast of the Dedication in John 10:22–23 is not mere coincidence. This feast did not require attendance at the Temple as did several other sacred holidays, like Passover, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), and Tabernacles/Booths. But the feast itself was centered around the Temple as being the very place where God’s presence dwelt (e.g., 2 Chronicles 20:9).
The Temple was also the center of worship and the source of national identity. The Hanukkah celebration was meant as a festival offering of thanksgiving to God for his deliverance and the preservation of what God himself had commanded to be built and which would bring pleasure to him (Haggai 1:8). God had also promised that the glory of this Second Temple would surpass that of the First Temple built by Solomon, that he would fill it with his glory, and that in it he would give peace (Haggai 2:7–9).
And being God, with his very presence bringing glory to the Temple, how could Jesus, the very embodiment of light, deliverance, and peace, abstain from appearing in the Temple for the festival which commemorated those very things?
When we consider that just shortly before coming to the Temple during Hanukkah, Jesus had declared himself the light of the world (John 8:12, John 9:5), had healed a man blind since birth (John 9:1–7), and had been spoken of by the prophet Isaiah as the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6) and the one who would be “a light to the Gentiles, To open blind eyes, To bring out prisoners from the prison, Those who sit in darkness from the prison house” (Isaiah 42:6–7 NKJV). And being God, with his very presence bringing glory to the Temple, how could Jesus, the very embodiment of light, deliverance, and peace, abstain from appearing in the Temple for the festival which commemorated those very things?
The Celebration of Hanukkah Today
Like many holidays, what is celebrated today has been mostly secularized and commercialized, with only glimpses of the God-honoring historical background still visible. Hanukkah has become a time of overindulgence of fried foods like latkes (potato pancakes) or donuts, mass marketing of kitsch, penny-ante games of dreidel (a spinning top game), and for the children, chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil. Presents are exchanged and menorahs are lit, usually in the evening, with one candle the first night, two candles the next night, three the third night, and so on. There’s nothing terribly wrong with these newer traditions, but the focus has clearly shifted from the celebration of the providence and protection of God to mostly a family get-together.
But there are still some things that are done specifically to remember and thank God. When the Menorah is lit each night, there are two blessings recited. Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the Chanukah light. Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time. And a special blessing is recited on the first night only: Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.4
The Hallel (Psalms 113–118) is recited at this time, and the original focus on God is clearly seen in the opening verse “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” (Psalm 113:1). And the last verse focuses on God’s goodness: “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 118:29).
Jesus Came into the World as Light (John 12:46)
Not only those of the Jewish faith but many Jewish Christians and Messianic Jews also celebrate Hanukkah. While the holiday is only mentioned in Protestant Bibles that one time in John 10:22–23, it is very interesting that the religious leaders of the day made a connection between Hanukkah and the Messiah. “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 10:24). Jesus scolded them for not believing but then plainly said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).
Jesus told them then that he was the Messiah, just as he had earlier read from Isaiah and clearly stated it was prophesying of him, saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). In both cases they tried to kill him. Ironically during the time of Judas Maccabee, the Jews who were zealous for God, true worship of him, and for the sanctity of the Temple were opposed by Hellenistic Jews who sided with the Seleucids. The lighting of the Menorah at Hanukkah not only speaks about God’s deliverance and promised (and now come) Messiah but it also shows the difference between those who love the light and those who hate it because it exposes their evil deeds (John 3:19–21).
The Apostle Peter further highlighted God’s light and contrasted it with the darkness: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
Hanukkah at its core is a holiday of thanksgiving that focuses on God’s miraculous light, which shone supernaturally beyond its capability. Those miracles of physical deliverance and sustaining power by God caused the Maccabees to glorify God and proclaim an annual commemorative festival, but it did not end with the Maccabees.
And Christians are further commanded to be living Menorahs: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
For Christians, we are told that we were delivered from darkness to light: “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). And Christians are further commanded to be living Menorahs: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
While most Christians do not celebrate Hanukkah, perhaps we can at least pause and consider the goodness of God at this time, which culminated in the ultimate act of goodness, the sending of his son Jesus. Perhaps Hanukkah can serve as a reminder that Scripture tells us that Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12) who caused us to be children of light (Ephesians 5:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:5) and made us to be the Temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16; 2 Corinthians 6:16) and our bodies to be the Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). Therefore can we who have been delivered, redeemed, providentially sustained, and commissioned to be living lights do anything other than glorify God as Israel did at the time of the Maccabean Revolt?