Last night was the eighth and final night of Hanukkah, also known as the “Feast of Dedication” and the “Festival of Lights.” The word “hanukkah” literally means dedication, fitting because these eight days of celebration mark the re-dedication of God’s temple after having been desecrated, but also because it is a time to reflect on who and what we are dedicating ourselves to as believers.
You might ask, “You’re not Jewish, why would you celebrate Hanukkah?” To be honest, I don’t see the holiday as Jewish, necessarily, but as Hebrew. The Bible says that Jesus Himself went up to celebrate at the temple during the Festival of Lights (John 10:22-23). Of course it makes sense that He would have celebrated Hanukkah, because He was a Jew, meaning he came from the lineage of the tribe of Judah. But He was also a Hebrew, and as the Savior of the world, He made it clear that all those who believe in Him and accept His gift of eternal life are “grafted in” to the tree of Israel. This means we are apart of His family — we have “crossed over” just as the Israelites did at the Jordan river so long ago, and become Hebrews ourselves, much like the mixed multitude that followed God’s people out of Egypt. To me, it only makes sense to walk in the footsteps of Messiah and celebrate the same feasts as He did. Because I am apart of His family tree, I consider the victories and celebrations of His people to be my own.
The Hanukkah Story
It was a few generations before Christ’s time, and the Greeks had come into power under Alexander the Great. Following his death, the Syrians took power over the regions surrounding Israel, under the reign of Antiochus IV. Antiochus wanted everything and everyone to be united under the prevailing Hellenistic culture, and to worship the same gods that he and all other Greeks worshiped. In an effort to enforce his ideals, he passed royal laws that outlawed the seventh-day Sabbath, the reading of the Hebrew scriptures, and even circumcision, effectively making the practice of Judaism illegal. He began to demand the people call him “Antiochus Epiphanus,” which roughly translates to “God in the flesh.” He even passed laws to enforce the worship of Greek gods, going so far as to send His troops marching into Jerusalem, where they were ordered to tear down the holy temple’s instruments and erect an image of Zeus within the temple walls.
The Jews were given an ultimatum — convert to the Greek way of life, or die. Many converted to Hellenism, and even advocated that their fellow brothers should do the same. Others were appalled by the pagan practices and changes happening in their culture, but felt helpless to challenge the Greek authorities.
However there was one family who not only recognized the injustices being enforced on God’s chosen people, but decided to stand up for what was right no matter the cost. In a small village called Modi’in lived a man called Mattatias — an old, godly priest — and his five sons. They were known for miles around to be men of holiness, which is why when it came time for a pagan festival to take place in their village, the Syrian authorities ordered Mattatias to lead the ceremony. This was the last straw. In an act of righteous indignation, Mattatias not only refused to obey the Syrian authorities, but he and his sons killed the Syrian soldiers. This one act sparked a rebellion among the Jews against their Greco-Roman oppressors.
When Mattatias fell ill and died, leadership of the rebellion passed to his son, Judah (nicknamed “the hammer”) Maccabee, who led a growing army of rebels against the oppressive Syrian government. In the month of Kislev (December), he led 1,000 Jews to victory against 20,000 Syrian troops, reclaiming their home of Jerusalem and the now-desecrated temple.
Because the temple had been defiled by pagan sacrifices, Judah and the other Hebrews set about quickly re-sanctifying the altar and other instruments, including the menorah (lampstand). They rededicated everything to the Lord. However, Jewish historians claim that when they went looking for pure olive oil with which to light the menorah, there was only enough oil left to last one day. Though it would take eight days to make and purify more oil, they decided to light the menorah for at least one night. Miraculously, the lampstand burned brightly for eight whole days, until the next batch of oil was ready. This is why Hanukkah lasts eight days, and why hannukiahs (special lampstands made specifically for Hanukkah) have eight branches instead of the traditional six — to celebrate the eight nights that God kept the light of the temple burning brightly.
Whether or not it’s true that the miracle of the oil really happened (no doubt it could have, since nothing is impossible for YHWH!), the feast of Hanukkah is still a wonderful reminder of a time when God’s people faced oppression and fought back, reclaiming righteousness in His name.
I love the story behind Hanukkah; it holds so many relevant and valuable lessons for believers today. It promotes freedom from tyranny, doing what is right in the face of adversity, and having faith through trials that God will provide for us in our times of need. As well as valuable lessons, there are several prophetic types and shadows of Messiah in the Hanukkah story. Scripture says that in the end times, a man will rise up and claim to be “God in the flesh,” leading millions astray and persecuting those who follow Christ. But Messiah will return and lead a rebellion against the king of this world and His followers, leading us to victory and to a new time of true restoration with Him. Like Mattatias and his sons, we as believers must have the courage needed to stand for righteousness, no matter the cost.
During His time on earth, Jesus claimed that He was “the Light of the World,” and that we are commanded also to be a “light” to the nations, shining forth with love and righteousness. This season of rededicating ourselves and our homes to him is no doubt a great time to do just that, by making sure that we are being obedient to Him in all areas of our lives. Another way to be a light is by performing acts of kindness for those less fortunate than ourselves, so that they may see the love and sacrifice of Messiah through us. The Bible is clear that the best way to be a light for Messiah is to simple exemplify his selfless love, in everything we do. If we obey Him and love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves, His love will do the rest, scattering the darkness of despair and hopelessness in peoples’ lives so that they can see Him.
How are you being a light for the world this holiday season?