Festival of Lights/Feast of Dedication
1 Maccabees 4
First Covenant Application:
commemoration of the deliverance of Israel by God from Antiochus Epiphanes IV through the family of the Maccabees; rededication of the Temple; miracle of the lights of the menorah
New Covenant Application:
celebration of God's deliverance from our enemies (all typified by the spirit of antichrist); dedication of the Temple of our hearts for the habitation of the LORD; celebration of Jesus the Messiah as the Light of the World shining through us
Millennial Reign of Jesus Christ
Hanukkah (Festival of Lights)
mentioned in B'rit Chadashah ('New' Testament)
Hanukkah is easily the most well-known Jewish holiday outside of Judaism, chiefly because of its position in the calendar with relation to Christmas. It is very clear, however, that Hanukkah is far from being just an alternative holiday for Jews: while Christmas is an amalgam of European pagan and Christian elements slowly bonded together over centuries of practice, Hanukkah derives its tradition from a single, real, historical event in Jewish history which predates the celebration of Christmas by at least 500 years.
Not too terribly long after the Jews were released by the Persians from their captivity in Babylon to return to Israel and build the Second Temple, the Greeks invaded and conquered the Persian Empire. According to a few slightly differing accounts, Alexander the Great was so impressed with the Jews that he allowed them to practice Judaism unhindered, even so far as to allow Jewish soldiers the right to follow their own traditions while in service with the Greek army. This must have truly been an incredible arrangement, given the Greek disposition for imposing their culture on conquered peoples.
The love affair would not be permanent: Alexander died in 323 B.C.; having no heir, his kingdom was split among his generals. In place of a unified Greek Empire, four rival kingdoms quickly emerged: Pergamom (Thrace), Macedonia, the Ptolemaic Empire, and the Seleucid Empire. At the point of the Greek Empire's division, the Ptolemaic Empire controlled the land of Israel; all was well for 100 years, during which time the Septuagint version of the Tanakh was reportedly created for the library of Alexandria. In 203 B.C., however, Antiochus III of the Seleucid Empire fought with the Ptolemies for control of all the territories on the Eastern Mediterranean Coast and won, bringing every locality from what is today southern Turkey to the Gaza Strip under the Seleucid domain. Antiochus and his succeeding son Seleucus levied high taxes on the Jews to pay for their growing conflict with Rome.
Then, in 174 B.C., Seleucus was killed in battle and his brother, Antiochus IV 'Epiphanes', ascended to the throne. He hated the idea of the Jews having an independent culture and religion; being a Hellenized Syrian, he sought to supplant Judaism with Greek and Syrian paganism. Antiochus removed the Jewish high priest and installed the priest's brother for a bribe, who was sympathetic to the Hellenistic cause. (Ironically, he himself would be ousted by an even more corrupted pretender, also through a bribe to Antiochus.) When the Jews revolted against this latest installment upon hearing an erroneous report that Antiochus had died, Antiochus massacred a great number of people in Jerusalem and began a total campaign of persecution against the Jewish people. Judaism was outlawed under penalty of death. Soldiers went back and forth across Israel, forcing many to worship Greek and Syrian gods, and killing any who refused.
Finally, the soldiers arrived in the town of Mode'in, where there lived an old priest by the name of Mattityahu. Mattityahu declared that all those in Mode'in would honor the covenant of God and not worship the gods of the Greeks and Syrians. When another man of the town went forward to offer a sacrifice to one of the foreign gods, Mattityahu struck him down with his sword. At seeing Mattityahu's zealousness for the LORD, all the men of Mode'in immediately overtook the Syrian soldiers and killed them. Knowing that there would most certainly be a reprisal for their behavior, Mattityahu took his sons and all those faithful to God and fled away into the hills. From there, they waged war against the Syrians little by little, with enormous success. Mattityahu's sons continued their father's fight after his death, the primary leader being Judas 'Maccabee'. After many clashes with the Syrians, the Maccabees (as they became known) retook Jerusalem. On the 25th Kislev (late Nov.-Dec.) in 164 B.C., the Maccabees rededicated the Second Temple. They celebrated for eight days, and decreed that Hanukkah should be established as a festival from that time forward (1 Maccabees 4:56-59). Legend says that when the brothers went to light the menorah, they found only one jar of oil that was fit for use in the Temple; so they went with what they had. Miraculously, the oil burned for all eight days of their celebration, even though it should have only lasted for one.
The Seleucids never regained their vice-grip hold over the Jews, thanks in part to surprisingly successful diplomacy on the part of the Maccabees combined with a touch-and-go friendship with the growing Roman Empire. For a short while, Israel was independent under the Hasmonean dynasty (beginning with Simon Maccabee), until the Romans decided that friendship was not enough, and so they sent the general Pompey to take advantage of a Hasmonean civil war and lay siege to Jerusalem in 63 B.C. From there, the Romans kept the Hasmoneans on as puppets until 37 B.C., when Herod the Great defeated the Hasmoneans and won Rome's backing as 'King of the Jews'.
The three universally celebrated themes of Hanukkah are dedication, deliverance, and light. Interestingly, Hanukkah has a New Covenant connection as well that ties into these themes. The Book of John records in John 10:22 that Jesus was walking the grounds of the Temple with His disciples during Hanukkah (obviously signifying that He was there celebrating the Feast of Dedication as well).
Then came the Festival of Dedication [Hanukkah] at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” --John 10:22-25
Jesus used Hanukkah as an occasion to reveal Himself as the Messiah--the Light of the World, the Deliverer, and the One to Whom the Temple was dedicated. In this light, Christians have a bounty of reasons to celebrate Hanukkah. In the New Covenant, we are taught that our bodies are the temple of God (1 Corinthians 6:19). Since Jesus has offered Himself as the ultimate sacrifice and entered the Eternal High Priesthood, thus changing the Law of Moses (see Hebrews 7 and my article Paul Misinterpreted? for more details), blood sacrifices for sin and guilt and the punishments of the Law are no longer required for those who embrace the New Covenant over which Jesus is the arbitrator. However, there is an offering that remains which is equivalent to the burnt offering in the First Covenant:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing and perfect will.--Romans 12:1-2
When we dedicate ourselves, as the temple of God, as holy (that is, set apart) for use by God for His purposes, it is a pleasing sacrifice to God, like the aroma of the burnt offering. For what purposes specifically are we being dedicated? Ephesians 2:10 says we are "...God's handiwork, created in Christ to do good works..." While these certainly do not earn us eternal life, it is the way we show our worship to God. It is His intention to pass the light of His character through us to the world:
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” --John 8:12
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. --2 Corinthians 4:6
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house." --Matthew 5:14-15
Like the Maccabees, we refuse to bow to the world's pressure to worship ourselves. We are zealous for our God and the covenant He has made with us; we dedicate the temple of our hearts, and allow the Light of that temple, the Deliverer (Messiah) of the world, to be kindled within us to shine out for all the world to see.
For tips on how to incorporate this celebration into the traditions of your family, see the Celebration Suggestions on the left sidebar of this page. Happy Hanukkah!