Hanukkah is often called the “Jewish Christmas” because people give gifts and the holiday falls on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. Hanukkah commemorates historical events during the intertestamental period. Unlike the fall feasts of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot, or the spring feasts of Purim, Pesach, and Shavuot, this holiday is not commanded or mentioned in the Old Testament.
The events that this holiday commemorates are recorded in the non-canonical first and second Book of Maccabees. After Alexander the Great’s death, his kingdom was divided into three areas. The Seleucid Empire was the largest and included the land of Israel. At the time of the story, King Antiochus Epiphanes ruled over this land. His name means “God manifest,” but the Jewish people called him Antiochus Epimanes (the mad one). He wanted more land and invaded Egypt, which had been part of the Ptolemaic Empire. On his return, he ransacked the temple in Jerusalem and took the shewbread and other artifacts back to his homeland. He returned two years later and destroyed more property, taking Jewish people captive, burning their houses, and tearing down the city walls.
Still, he remained unsatisfied. He sent messengers to Jerusalem instructing the Jewish people to adopt his pagan practices, to stop worshipping their God and circumcising their sons, and to forget the laws of God. Failure to obey his command resulted in death. Two groups of Jewish people emerged: one that assimilated and took on the pagan customs even to the point of abandoning their faith and sacrificing to idols, and another that refused to compromise their faith. This decree was the impetus for the battle that soon ensued. The ultimatum had been given: abandon your Jewish ways and adopt the Greek ways or die.
A final act that brought greater resistance was the desecration of the temple. Antiochus went into the temple in Jerusalem and offered a pig on the altar. He ordered the burning of Torah scrolls and killing of Jewish people who continued to practice their religion. To the Jews who remained faithful, this opposition made them stronger in their resistance. In the battle that followed, the Jewish people, led by the Maccabee family, won. Upon recovering Jerusalem, they rededicated the temple that Antiochus had desecrated. Thus, the name for this holiday is the Feast of Dedication, taken from the book of Maccabees. It says, “every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days” (1 Maccabees 4.52-59). It was also called the Festival of Lights by the historian Josephus.
Interestingly, this holiday is only mentioned in the New Testament in John 10.22-23, where we see Jesus in the temple celebrating Hanukkah. Believers in Jesus can glean much from the Feast of Dedication and the spiritual truths imparted. Just like the Maccabees, we can be diligent in remaining dedicated to God not just our words, but also our lifestyle. As 1 Corinthians 3.16 tells us, we are temples of God and the Holy Spirit dwells in us. We must keep this temple pure and free from contamination. It is so easy to compromise today as society pressures us. Yet the people of God always have been in the world, not of it. Many of the Jewish people acquiesced to peer pressure forsaking their faith. As followers of Jesus, we need to be firmly rooted in our faith, refusing the temptation to compromise in a world often void of a moral compass, in an environment that encourages us to do what feels right at the moment.
Additionally, central to the celebration of this holiday is the lighting of a special menorah called the Chanukiah. It is lit for eight days, lighting one candle the first night and two the second night until all eight candles are burning on the eighth day. A special candle called the servant candle is lit first and used to light the other candles. As Christians, this imagery reminds us that Yeshua is the servant of the Lord whose light reaches into the world’s darkness. He is the one light who brings release and freedom to all. He says, “I have come as a light to shine in this dark world so that all who trust in Me will no longer wander in darkness” (John 12.46). He also calls us to be lights that shine brightly, penetrating through the darkness around us, bringing the hope we have through the Messiah Jesus.
The final theme of this holiday is miracles. This theme comes from a Talmudic story that says only one flask of oil was found for the menorah in the temple when they came to rededicate it, but that oil miraculously lasted for eight days. As Pentecostals, we must never forget that we serve a miracle-working God. Too often, we allow human reasoning to talk us out of God’s miracle-working power. Yet, when we read the Bible, we see a God of miracles, and He has not changed (Hebrews 13:8). Like the men and women of the Scriptures, we need to ignite our faith with expectation to see God move through signs and wonders in our lives and the world today.