It was now winter, and Jesus was in Jerusalem at the time of Hanukkah, the Festival of Dedication. He was in the Temple, walking through the section known as Solomon’s Colonnade. The people surrounded him and asked, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” [John 10:22-24 (NLT)]
Today is the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar: the first of the eight days of Hanukkah. Last night, our Jewish brothers and sisters lit the first of the Hanukkah candles. Hanukkah isn’t a Jewish version of Christmas and it’s no more about dreidels (spinning tops), gelt (foil wrapped chocolate coins), potato latkes, or gifts than Christmas is about presents, decorated trees, holiday lights, or Santa. Just as Scripture doesn’t require celebrating Christ’s birthday, it doesn’t require Hanukkah’s observance. Nevertheless, because they both recognize events of great significance to Christians or Jews, these holidays continue to be celebrated throughout the world.
The Hanukkah story is recorded in the books of 1st and 2nd Maccabees and celebrates events that took place in 164 BC. Having been mercilessly persecuted by their Seleucid rulers, the people of Judah rebelled when the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes vandalized the Temple and defiled it by erecting an idol on its altar and sacrificing swine. Three years after its desecration, Jewish guerilla forces (led by Judah Maccabee) managed to defeat an army of 40,000 to reclaim the Temple. After thoroughly purifying the Temple, they relit the golden lampstand (the menorah), rededicated the Temple, and celebrated for eight days. Known as the Feast of Dedication (hanukkah means dedication), this celebration also became known as the Festival of Lights in commemoration of the relighting of the seven lamps of the Temple’s menorah.
The books of the Maccabees, however, have never been part of the accepted canon of the Hebrew scriptures and, like other books of the Apocrypha, they won’t be found in Jewish Bibles or in most Christian ones. Nevertheless, the Feast of Dedication was celebrated by Jews in the 1st century and John tells us that Jesus was at the Temple in Jerusalem during its observance. It was at that time that He was asked point blank if He were the Messiah.
Having seen His miracles, the people knew Jesus’ power exceeded that of an ordinary man and, having heard His words, they knew His authority surpassed that of their religious leaders. Nevertheless, they were expecting a military leader like Judah Maccabee—someone who would free them from Roman oppression and Jesus hadn’t spoken of politics or rebellion. Saying that the proof of His identity lay in His works, Jesus accused his questioners of being unwilling to believe. Indeed, rather than being interested in the truth, many simply wanted to catch Jesus saying something that might lead to His arrest. After Jesus made a claim of divinity by saying, “The Father and I are one,” they accused Him of blasphemy. Indeed, if Jesus were a mere man claiming to be God, His words would have been blasphemous. Jesus, however, wasn’t a man claiming to be God; He was the second member of the Godhead who was claiming to be a man! Wanting to stone Jesus for His supposed sacrilege, the people tried to arrest Him, but He escaped. In the end, however, He died for His truthful words.
How ironic that, at the very time people were remembering God’s deliverance of Israel from the pagan Seleucids, they wanted to kill the One who came to deliver them from Satan! Having been conquered again by Rome in 63 BC, the deliverance they were celebrating had been temporary; the deliverance offered by Jesus would last forever! While celebrating the Festival of Lights, they wanted to kill the One who actually was the Light of the World! The way, the truth, and the life stood right before them and yet some refused to believe!
When we see the brightly colored lights associated with Christmas, let us celebrate the One who truly brought God’s light into the world. Those who follow Jesus will never walk in darkness because He is the Light of Life!