In 165BC, Judah Maccabee led a force of Jewish fighters who took the city of Jerusalem from under the control of the Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes. Antiochus had tried to force the Jews to leave their customs and cease to obey the Mosaic Law in order to conform to the Greek society of the day. Many of those Jews who opposed him were killed. In order to destroy the Jewish religious practice, Antiochus desecrated the temple in Jerusalem by sacrificing pigs on its altar. He then made it into a house of worship to the Greek god Zeus.
After Antiochus desecrated the temple, a priest named Mattathias and his five sons rose up in rebellion against him. Their family name was Hasmonean but they came to be known as the Maccabees, a name that means Hammer. They certainly were used as the Hammer of God against Antiochus. Though poorly armed and greatly outnumbered, they won battle after battle against the superior Syrian forces. Though Mattathias did not live to see it, shortly after his death his son Judas entered the city as a victor.
Judas spent several months cleansing the temple and its environs. He then proclaimed the 25th of Kislev as the beginning of a holy feast given to the rededication of the temple for the priestly service. This date marked the third anniversary from the time the temple was originally desecrated by Antiochus. Though the calendars do not match perfectly, the eight day feast of Hanukkah generally corresponds to the Christmas season.
Hanukkah is celebrated each year by the eating of special foods like the potato pancakes called latkes and other fried foods. (They are fried in oil because of the miracle of the oil told below.) Children play a game with a holiday top called a dreidel. Also, the people give gifts to one another. This last part of the celebration used to be a minor part. However, many Jewish parents now feel that they must compete with Christmas so they often give their children gifts for each of the eight days of the feast.
But probably the most characteristic tradition of the feast is the lighting of the Hanukkah candles. This is why Hanukkah is also called the Festival of Lights. Tradition teaches that when the priests went in to light the menorah (or candlestick), they only found one unopened and uncontaminated cruse of oil that could be used for the lighting of the lamps. And, it only had enough oil for one day. But, when they filled the lamps and lit them, the oil miraculously lasted for eight days. The lighting of the eight Hanukkah candles commemorates this miracle.
Though Hanukkah is a Jewish feast, the New Testament teaches that Jesus honored this feast with His attendance. John 10:22-23 states, “And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon's porch.” Since Jesus attended this festival, we should not be surprised that many aspects of its celebration has lessons to His followers today. Let us look at some of these lessons.
- Hanukkah means dedication. Its initial purpose was to rededicate the temple that had sat filthy and had been used for the worship of false gods. This feast celebrated that fact that once again the house of God was cleansed and sanctified for His use alone. In like manner, we who have trusted in Jesus Christ as Saviour should cleanse our lives and set them apart for Gods use. We should dedicate ourselves to God and live only for Him.
- The two great Jewish teachers, Shammai and Hillel, argued over how the candles should be lit. Shammai taught that all the candles should be lit the first night of the feast and that one should be snuffed out each succeeding evening. Hillel, whose view won out, said that one candle should be lit each night until all of the candles were lit at the end of the eight days. His argument was that we should be increasing in holiness and not decreasing. We should still be increasing and not decreasing; we should grow in the grace of the knowledge of Jesus Christ.
- According to Jewish tradition, the candles are placed in the Hanukkah candlestick (when facing it) from right to left. However, the candles are lit from left to right. This way, the candles that are set in place last are lit first and the candles that are set in place first are lit last. This reminds us of the saying of Jesus that the last shall be first, and the first last. He is teaching that those who seem to be the most important may not have an equal place in heaven. And, those who seem to be lowly here may have a much higher position in the world to come.
- In a similar teaching, both men and women are to have part in the lighting of the candles. This is not true in many of the Jewish ceremonies. Usually, men do most of that which is visible. However, Hanukkah teaches that both men and women had an equal part in the deliverance of the Jewish people in the time of the Maccabees. Many stories of the heroism of women are told. Also, under the teaching of the New Testament, women often take a back seat in the public ministry. However, the apostle Paul makes it clear that all, including male and female, are one in Christ Jesus. Different roles do not indicate different standings with God.
- Each family is to place its Hanukkah candlestick so that it is visible to the outsidewhether in a window or in a special place near a door. So, Jesus tells us not to light our candle and put it under a bushel. We should put it on a candlestick and let it shine as a testimony to all men. Also, each candle is to be lit right after sundown. As this world gets darker and darker, so we should be lights in the world.
- The Hanukkah menorah is purposely designed to be different from the temple menorah. The temple menorah has seven lamps. The Hanukkah candlestick has eight (plus the ninth, which will be explained in the next paragraph). Also, it is actually called the hanukkia in order to distinguish it from the holy menorah. It is like the temple menorah but it is not to be confused with it. So, we are to be like Christ. He is our example in every aspect of the Christian life. We are to be recreated in His image. However, we should never get the idea that we are identical to Him. We will always come far short of the His glory. He will always be the first and the last.
- Finally, the Hanukkah menorah has a ninth candle called the shamash which means servant. None of the eight candles are ever to be used to light any of the other eight candles. All of them are to be lit from the ninth, or servant, candle. God the Father calls Jesus Christ my servant, whom I have chosen. Jesus came not to be ministered unto but to minister. We cannot find our light in the light of another believer. Each of us must have our candle lit by the light of all mankind, by Jesus Christ Himself. He is truly the Servant and the sole source of our light.
As we come to the season of the Festival of Lights, the Feast of Hanukkah, I wonder. Do you know the light of the world? Are you lit by His flame? Are you showing your candle to the outside world for all to see? There is so much for us to learn from this feast attended by Christ—the Feast of Dedication.