Most of the time when we hear about Hanukkah, we think it’s a “Jewish thing.” However, you may be surprised when you hear a bit more about it. Tuesday, December 12th, began the eight-day Jewish festival of Hanukkah, the story of which is recounted in 1 Maccabees. Many Christians are familiar with the eight-day festival of Hanukkah because of its proximity to Christmas. It is commemorated on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, and falls sometime in late November or December.
Although a celebration of Christmas is nowhere to be found in the New Testament, Hanukkah finds its way into the Gospels and serves as an important backdrop in the ministry of Jesus in John 10. To understand the significance of this aspect of His ministry, however, it is necessary to understand Hanukkah.
In 167 B.C., the Syro-Greek king Antiochus IV Epiphanes began to persecute the Jewish people. Antiochus IV Greek forbade circumcision, burned Jewish Scriptures, forced Jews to eat unclean swine’s flesh, and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem by commanding an un-kosher sacrifice of swine on the Temple’s altar.
Horrified by the sacrilege of Antiochus, an elderly priest, Mattathias and his son Judah Maccabaeus (AKA: “the Hammer”) formed a militia and waged guerilla warfare against the occupying Greek forces. Almost three years later the revolution succeeded and the Temple was rededicated in 164 B.C. on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev. The festival commemorating the event is called Hanukkah, which means “Dedication.”
The feast of Chanukkah lasts eight days because Judas Maccabaeus wanted to imitate the original dedication of the Temple by King Solomon, which lasted eight days. Judas Maccabaeus decreed that a new eight-day festival on the twenty-fifth day of the Jewish month of Kislev.
The Jewish Talmud offers another tradition to explain the eight days of Hanukkah. When the Jews recaptured Jerusalem from the abusive Greeks, the Jewish priests did not have enough oil to keep the Temple’s menorah lit. There was only enough sacred oil to burn for one day and it would take at least a week to mix a fresh supply of holy oil. The miracle of Hanukkah was that the one-day supply of holy oil lasted for eight days. For this reason, Jews light the menorah during the eight days of the festival.
Most of my Christian friends are unaware of these connections. As a result, they miss the important “Hanukkah message” of Christ in John’s Gospel. The presence of Christ at the Temple during Hanukkah is important because Hanukkah recalled how the Maccabees dedicated the Temple after the Greeks had defiled it. However, the presence of God’s glory did not manifest itself at the re-dedication of the Maccabees and fill the Temple as it did in the days of King Solomon. Since the time of the Maccabees, God had not inhabited the Temple as He had before the Jews’ Babylonian exile. The presence of Christ in the Temple at Hanukkah shows that God’s presence had once again entered the Temple.
John 10:22-24 It was the feast of the Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter and Jesus was walking in the Temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered round him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us openly”.
It was during Hanukkah that Christ answered them by boldly proclaiming:
John 10:30 “I and the Father are one”
Christ entered into the Temple at the feast of Hanukkah and presented himself as the God of Israel. His enemies immediately understood His claim in light of Hanukkah’s significance. We know this because they took up stones to stone him and said, “We stone you for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself to be God” (Jn 10:31-33). Hence, the festival of Hanukkah serves as a sign of Christ’s fulfillment of the Temple and the entire Old Covenant. Jesus was not only a gifted rabbi from Nazareth-He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
In John 10.22, almost two hundred years later, mention is made of the Feast of Dedication. At that time, one part of the festival included the reading of a portion of Scripture that reminded the people of the unfaithful rulers of the past and the God who would watch over His people. The passage that was read came from the prophet Ezekiel
Ezekiel 34:1-11 The word of the LORD came to me: ‘Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel’; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves!’ Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them. “‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.”`For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them'”
This, then, is the context for the incredible statements that Jesus made during the Feast of Dedication during His final winter on earth.
Against this backdrop Jesus declares, John 10.14-15, & 27-29 “I am the good shepherd; and I know My own, and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep . . . My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand”.
Jesus contrasted Himself with the unfaithful, corrupt shepherds of Israel’s past and declared Himself to be the True Shepherd of God’s people. In so doing, He established the standard for all subsequent shepherds of the people of God and described the responsibilities of leadership: to take care of the flock, to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strays, search for the lost; to rule gently and kindly, and to keep them from scattering and becoming vulnerable to the enemy.
Our Rabbi, Jesus the Christ, remains the Light of the world! Happy Hanukkah!