Hanukkah "the Festival of Lights"

Hanukkah is a happy, festive, joyous eight-day Jewish celebration that starts on Kislev 25 on the Hebrew calendar (same as November-December on the Gregorian calendar). It is also called the Festival of Lights. The word Hanukkah means "dedication."

Hanukkah is an important feast for the Jewish people, for it reminds them of how God miraculously delivered their ancestors when they were persecuted.

Hanukkah Menorah - the Festival of LightsOn the first day, the shammash, the prominent branch of the Hanukkah Menorah, the nine-branched lamp is lighted. The shammash, which means "servant," is usually in the center and is the tallest of the branches of the menorah. From it each of the other branches is lighted on subsequent days, until all are lighted.

The Historical Events of Hanukkah  

The Hanukkah celebrates freedom from oppression. It commemorates the Jewish victory over the Hellenist Syrians.

Hanukkah originated with the rededication of the Jewish temple in B.C. 164, after the Syrian ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes had desecrated it. Antiochus reigned from B.C. 175 to 164, and had a burning desire to Hellenize everyone under his rule. The Syrian-Greeks offered art, poetry and literature to the lives of the Judeans, attempting to create in this way a new mind-set of customs, traditions and pagan faith. Antiochus loved the Greek customs, culture, philosophy, and religions and wanted every one of his subjects to accept it. They attempted to impose their own religious values, dogma and fanaticism upon the people. Some of the Jews welcomed the new ways, but most rejected it.

In B.C. 170 Antiochus attacked Jerusalem and 80,000 Jews perished, and that many more were sold into slavery. The Jewish Temple was robbed. He tore down its wall, desecrated its temple by abolishing its sacrifices and carrying away its furniture, banning Jewish religion, massacring many, prohibiting the rite of circumcision, destroying copies of the Law, and establishing the worship of Jupiter (Olympian Zeus) in the temple. During the time of Antiochus it was a capital offence to possess a copy of the law, to circumcise a child. Parents who disobeyed the law and circumcised their boys were crucified with the son hanging around their necks.

In December B.C. 168, Antiochus brought matters to a climax in Jerusalem. He sent his general, Apollonius, with twenty thousand troops under orders to seize Jerusalem on a Sabbath. There he erected an idol of Zeus and desecrated the altar by offering swine on it. This idol became known to the Jews as "the abomination of desolation." He profaned the Temple and turned its chambers into brothels for his soldiers. The ultimate abomination was offering swine's flesh to the pagan gods on the Jewish altar.

The revolt against Antiochus began when Mattathias, an old priest in the village of Modin, killed a royal commissioner of Antiochus along with an apostate Jew who entered the town to offer heathen sacrifices. Mattathias and his five sons then fled to the hills. In the next few months he and two of his sons died, but the remaining three sons (Judas, Jonathan, and Simon) led the insurrection. Judas was named the "Maccabee" (the hammer), and under his leadership the Jews won major victories in B.C. 165 and 164. In December of B.C. 164, Judas reclaimed the temple, cleansed it of its Syrian pollution, and had it rededicated to God with the festival known today as Hanukkah. The temple was rededicated on Kislev 25, B.C. 164, exactly three years after Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the temple (1 Mac. 4:52-29; 2 Mac. 10:6-8).

Judas Maccabaeus admonished the Jewish people: "The days of the dedication of the altar should be kept in their season from year to year, by the space of eight days, from the five and twentieth day of the month of Chislev, with gladness and joy" (1 Maccabees 4:59). 

One of the traditions in Judaism says one of the priests at the dedication of the Temple in B.C. 164 found a small flask of unpolluted oil sufficient for only one day. With menorah miraculously replenished for eight days. This gave the Maccabees enough time to obtain new oil to keep the menorah lit.

The Jewish people celebrated this great eight-day festival of Hanukkah, sometimes calling it the "Festival of the Dedication of the Altar," "the Memorial of the Purification of the Temple," and the "Festival of the Lights."

It is not uncommon to see lights in the windows of Jewish homes. There are two traditions among the Jewish people. Eight lights were set in the window according to Shammai. One was removed each day until on the last day only one was left burning. Hillel tradition begins with one light on the first day and each day one is added until on the eighth day eight are burning.

This Festival of Lights celebrates the freedom that had returned to Israel. For the next 100 years the people enjoyed this newfound freedom, until the Romans conquered Judah in B.C. 64.

Josephus called this celebration "the festival of Lights" because of the lighting of lamps in Jewish homes, "giving this name to it, I think, from the fact that the right to worship appeared to us at a time when we hardly dared hope for it." In ancient times it was also called "the dedication of the altar" (1 Macc. 4:59).

In the Hanukkah celebration Jews play games, exchange gifts, have family dinners, attend plays and concerts at synagogues and schools, and light a candle on each of the eight evenings. In the center of the candles is a more predominant ninth one, the "shammash," used to light the other candles.

The First Century Hanukkah Celebration

The Hanukkah celebration is not mentioned in the Old Testament because the historical event occurred during the 400-year period between the two Testaments.

The Hanukkah is mentioned in John 10:22. "At that time the Feast of the Dedication took place at Jerusalem" (John 10:22, NASB 1995). Here it is called the "Feast of Dedication" probably because the word Hanukkah in Hebrew means "dedication."

The apostle John tells us, "it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon. The Jews then gathered around Him, and were saying to Him, 'How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly'" (John 10:23-24).

Jesus, the Messiah, brought about an even greater deliverance than Judas Maccabaeus could ever give. He delivers not only for time, but also for eternity.

Jesus is also the "prophet" of whom Moses spoke (Deut. 18:15-19; Acts 7:37). He is also the Anointed of the LORD (John 4:25-26), and the Son of God (John 10:29-30).

The True Light

A couple of months earlier Jesus had declared, "I am the light of the world; he who follows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life" (John 8:12).

Soon thereafter Jesus gave light to the man born with a congenital disease (John 9:1-41). The "light" given to the man born blind (John 9) testifies to a greater symbolism of Hanukkah, namely, the light of the Lord shining on those who are spiritually blind.

The Hebrew prophet Isaiah spoke of the coming of the true Light. "Arise, shine; for your light has come, And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness will cover the earth And deep darkness the peoples; But the Lord will rise upon you And His glory will appear upon you. Nations will come to your light, And kings to the brightness of your rising" (Isaiah 60:1-3).

Christ is the true Light that gives light to all who believe on Him. He is the Light of life. He is the "light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel" (Luke 2:32). He alone can "light men into the knowledge and presence of God."

Jesus is the effulgence of the glory of God. "And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high" (Hebrews 1:3). 

For John, the "light" refers specifically to eternal life which is available to all through Jesus Christ. Christ is "the light of the world" (8:12; 9:5). He is come "a light into the world" (12:46). Indeed, the man who follows Him "shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life" (8:12). Men can be urged to believe in the light (12:36) just as they are urged to believe in Him. For the Jews in Jesus' day the lights of Hanukkah related to the temple and its dedication, but they would also have had lights in front of their homes during this feast. The Mishnah--the collection of oral laws compiled by Rabbi Judah the Prince (born in the year 135 of the Christian era)--states that outside the entrance of each house the Hanukkah lamp was positioned to affirm publicly the Hanukkah miracle. The lamps, inserted into glass lanterns to prevent the wind from extinguishing them, were placed on pedestals. Archaeological excavations show that these were common in antiquity. These pedestal lamps may be referred to in Luke 11:33, "No one, after lighting a lamp, puts it away in a cellar, nor under a peck-measure, but on the lampstand, in order that those who enter may see the light." At the Feast of Tabernacles two golden candelabra were lit in the court of the women in the temple. But why was this done? Nothing in the Old Testament stipulates such an action. Alfred Edersheim answers this question by showing the connection between the Feast of Tabernacles and the Feast of Hanukkah.

There is also a tragic consequence for all who reject the Light. "This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God" (John 3:19-21). 

The Eternal City of Light

All believers in the Messiah Jesus, both Jewish and Gentiles, will dwell forever with Him in the city of eternal light. This is what it will be like: "And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. In the daytime (for there will be no night there) its gates will never be closed" (Revelation 21:23-25).

We will be in the presence of the bright and morning star. "I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star" (Revelation 22:16).

God wrought a great deliverance through the Maccabees over 2100 years ago, but He performed an even greater deliverance when Jesus, the Light of the world, defeated the power of darkness. 

 One completed Hebrew stated it this way:

"I see that Jesus is our Messiah, the Son of God. He must be, for He came the very time our Moses said He would come (Genesis 49:10), and He came of the very tribe that Moses foretold (Genesis 49:8, 9). He came the very way our great Isaiah said He would come, by way of the virgin's womb (Isaiah 7:14), and He was born in the very city our Micah predicted, Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). Yes, and now I see He is the One of whom our Isaiah wrote in his fifty-third chapter." 

Yes, this is true of all who come to the Light and believe in Yeshua, and find all their darkness dispelled and sins forgiven. Jesus is the Light of the world.

Hanukkah and Christmas have some similar features, such as the time of year, lights, and the exchanging of gifts. However, the two celebrations have no direct relationship to each other. Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ approximately 160 years after the events that led to the establishment of Hanukkah. Christmas, like Hanukkah, is not directly established in Scripture. Yet, it can be used as an opportunity to declare who Jesus Christ is. It can be celebrated because it testifies of Him. Similarly Jesus used Hanukkah as an opportunity to proclaim who He is. "The Jews therefore gathered around Him, and were saying to Him, 'How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.' Jesus answered them, 'I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father's name, these bear witness of Me'" (John 10:24-25).

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Index to this Series on Christmas

Title:  Hanukkah "the Festival of Lights"

Series:  Christmas Index

Message by Wil Pounds (c) 2005. Anyone is free to use this material and distribute it, but it may not be sold under any circumstances whatsoever without the author's written consent. Scripture quotations from the New American Standard Bible (c) 1973, 1995 Update, The Lockman Foundation.

Wil is a graduate of William Carey University, B. A.; New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Th. M.; and Azusa Pacific University, M. A. He has pastored in Panama, Ecuador and the U. S, and served as a missionary for over twenty years in Ecuador and Field Director for the Honduras Baptist Medical Dental Mission in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, C. A. He had a daily expository Bible teaching ministry head in over 100 countries from 1972 -2005. He continues to seek opportunities to be personally involved in world missions. Wil and his wife Ann have three grown daughters. He is a Baptist missionary and teaches seminary extension courses in Honduras, Nicaragua,  Ecuador and Peru.

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