For the last ten years, I’ve been particularly intrigued by the life and history of the Jewish people. In so much that I have spent much time studying the customs and traditions of the Jews. Over the last few days I’ve been a part of the Hanukkah celebration with a Messianic Jewish community. I must say that it has been one of the most significant and meaningful experiences I’ve had to date. Before going any further let me remind you that the word of God, particularly the Old Testament, was written to a completely Hebrew audience. Therefore for us to really understand scripture, it is imperative that we study the text from a Hebraic perspective. It is virtually impossible to properly exegete the biblical text with a western mindset. It is equally important to understand the historical context and the culture of the Bible. Having said that, I am about to share with you why I believe Christians everywhere should celebrate Hanukkah. In order for me to do justice to the subject for my Messianic brothers, I must share the history and the origin of this great celebration. I promise you will find this story very interesting and pleasing to your soul if your read through the end.
There are simply too much to the history of the story Hanukkah for me to explain in this one article. However I will give you enough to give a clear understanding of the history and practice. The story of Hanukkah begins with a Jewish revolt against gross inequality and religious coercion. The holiday of Hanukkah, or Feast of Lights, celebrates the events which took place over 2,200 years ago in Israel, which predates Yeshua (our Lord Jesus). It begins in the reign of Alexander the Great. Alexander was not simply a power-hungry tyrant. He was a student of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, and became thoroughly convinced that the Greek culture was the one and only force to unite the entire world. In 333 B.C., he passed from Macedonia into Asia Minor and conquered the Persian armies. He then did the same and gained control of Sryia and Egypt. However there was no need to campaign against the Jews because they befriended him. Nonetheless he was determined to Hellenize the world, meaning he wanted to spread the Greek culture worldwide. He had set out to setup a new city in each country of his empire, which would serve as a model for the new Grecian lifestyle.
Materially speaking, this meant the erection of fine public buildings such as the famous Coliseum, a gymnasium for games, an open-air theater, and whatever would approximate the life of a Greek city-state. Religiously speaking it meant giving up one’s own religion for that of the Greeks, including the worship of ‘Zeus’ (Greek god). However because of the friendly feelings between them, Alexander permitted the Jews to practice their laws, granted them exemption from paying taxes during their Sabbatical years, and gave them privileges comparable to those of his Greek subjects. Individuals were encouraged to take Greek names, and to adopt Greek dress and language to become Hellenized. The material aspects of Hellenism became attractive for large segments of the population. Trade and commerce were booming and brought wealth to even the common man. Libraries and schools were welcomed by the scholar class. Better housing and better food brought about a rise in the standard of living. Many in Israel, as did elsewhere, were delighted to accept the facade Greek culture. Many Jews accepted the school of Greek philosophy, and to their own detriment, they tried to combine the wisdom of Greece with Judaism. During a later time, under Ptolemy II, the Alexandrian Jews even translated their Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek. This translation was later known as the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament).
However, like everyone will die someday, Alexander died at age 33 in Babylon, and about 100 years later, around 223 – 187 B.C., Antiochus IV surnamed Epiphanes, rose to power and becomes Seleucid ruler of Syria. The Jews referred to him not as Epiphanes which means “God (i.e., Zeus) made manifest,” but rather as Epimanes, which means “mad-man.” Unlike Alexander, Antiochus was determined to remove all traces of orthodox Jewish faith. Israel’s God was identified with Jupiter, and a bearded image of the pagan deity was erected on the temple altar. Jews were forbidden under the penalty of death, to practice circumcision, Sabbath observance, or the celebration of the Feasts of the Jewish calendar. Several copies of the scriptures were ordered destroyed and the laws were enforced with the utmost cruelty. History records that an aged scribe named Eleazar was beaten to death because he refused to eat swine. He began to oppress the Jews severely, placing a Hellenistic priest in the Temple, massacring Jews, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, and desecrating the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs on the altar. In spite of all that was happening, there was a remnant in Israel who resisted Hellenism and became more and more engrossed in the study of the Torah (first five books of Moses). The orthodox were willing to die for their faith. Today we see history repeating itself. There is a strong Anti-Christ agenda that is seeking to rid our society of everything that resembles Jesus. The world is being force-fed a postmodern mindset that has now found residence in the church. Nonetheless, just like the remnant in Israel, there is a remnant that will not bow down to the system and will contend for the faith at any cost.
One of the groups which opposed Antiochus was led by Mattathias and his son Judah. Soon after the beginning of the revolt, Mattathias died and Judah, known as the Maccabee, meaning “the hammer”, was chosen as their military leader. The choice was a good one, for more and more Jews rallied to the cause. Now known as the Maccabees, as the followers of Judah, the Jews were able to hold their own against a series of Syrian armies thrown against them. By a surprise night attack, Judah annihilated an army of the Syrians and Hellenistically minded Jews. The Maccabees entered the city and took everything. They then entered the temple and removed all signs of paganism which had been installed there. The statue of Jupiter was grounded to dust and a new altar was erected to Israel’s God. They cleansed and re-dedicated the Temple. The story goes on to say that when they were now ready to re-light the Menorah, they searched the entire Temple, but only one small jar of oil bearing the pure seal of the High Priest could be found. The jar of oil was only enough to last for one day. However they decided to light the Menorah to signal the re-dedication of the temple, but miraculously the Menorah stayed lighting for eight whole days. Ironically eight days was the same amount of time it took the priests to produce new oil according to the recipe given to Moses by God. This is believable when you think of the Elisha and the widow’s oil that never ran out in 2 kings chapter 4. Beginning on the twenty-fifth of Kislev (December), they celebrated the Feast of Dedication, known as Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. This marked the end of a three-year period during which the temple had been desecrated. From then on, Jews everywhere have observed Hanukkah for eight days in honor of this historic victory and the miracle of the oil. Hence the observance of Hanukkah features the lighting of a special menorah with nine branches, adding one new candle each night.
Unlike the original Menorah which features seven branches, the Hanukkah Menorah, also known as the “Hanukkiah”, features nine branches. Since the temple instruments were never to be used for common purposes, a group of Rabbis decided to use a nine branch menorah, so as not to duplicate the original temple menorah. The menorah symbolizes the burning light in the temple, as well as marking the eight days of the Hanukkah Festival. One lamp for each day of Hanukkah is of the same height, with a taller one in the middle which is the “shamash”, the servant (Messiah), which is used to light the others. Each night of Hannukkah, an additional candle is placed in the menorah from left to right. On the eighth and final night, all the candles are lit, including the “shamash”. In ancient times and still in some orthodox homes, oil is used in the menorah. Over time, candles were substituted for the oil. Except in times of religious persecution, the menorah was placed outside the front door, or as is the custom today, displayed in the window of every Jewish home.
During the eight days of Hannukkah, the entire Hallel (psalm of praise) is said. Families eat latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiot (jelly donuts), or other foods which are fried in oil, to celebrate and commemorate the miracle of the oil. In addition, it is a time when children are rewarded for their Torah studies. Consequently, it became fashionable to give children Hanukkah money and presents during the holiday. Savings bonds, checks, and small chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil are the modern incarnations of the traditional gift known as Hanukkah gelt. “Gelt” is a Yiddish term for money. Some people like to say that Hanukkah is the Jewish form of Christmas, but that is inaccurate. Hanukkah predates Christmas by hundreds of years and has nothing to do with it. Also among the traditions is the playing of a game called “Dreidel,” which I recently had the privilege of playing at a Hanukkah celebration. A dreidel is simply a four-sided top that features the Hebrew letters nun, gimel, shin, and hay. Nun is for nicht(nothing), gimel is for ganz(all), shin is for stell ein(put in), and hay is for half(half) – which indicated what one must do after each turn. The game reminds Jews in Israel that a great miracle happened here, and it reminds Jews everywhere else that a miracle happened there. History records that in times of persecution, when studying the Torah in their homes and authorities showed up, Jews would play this game as a cover-up for studying the Torah. Hanukkah has always been a minor celebration in Jewish tradition. It is not one of the original Feasts because while other feasts are sanctioned in the Torah and are seen as divinely ordained, Hanukkah is considered post-biblical. It was first celebrated by the Maccabees and then ordained by rabbis.
It is important to also note that the story of Hanukkah itself does not find context in the Canon of scripture. It is found in the 1 and 2 books of Maccabees. These books are a part of the Apocryphal books that were written between the Old and New testaments, also known as the Silent Years, from Malachi to Christ, or the Intertestamental Period. The other books are: 1 and 2 Esdras; Tobit; Judith;Additions to Esther; Wisdom of Solomon; Ecclesiasticus; Baruch; Letter of Jeremiah; Prayer of Azariah;Susanna; Bel and the Dragon; and the Prayer of Manasseh. The term Apocrypha is used to designate a collection of ancient Jewish writings that were written about 250 B.C. and the early Christian centuries. The apocryphal books have come to be regarded as inspired Scripture in the theology of the Roman Catholic Church, but the historic Protestant and Jewish viewpoint ascribes no real inspiration to them. However, the Apocryphal books give much information about what happened during those silent years. In addition, though there is no solid proof that He celebrated such, it is worth mentioning that Jesus Himself attended the Hanukkah celebration. The text clearly says “Now it was the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple, in Solomon’s porch” (John 10:22-23). Like I said early, the Feast of Dedication here is a direct reference to the Hanukkah celebration. This is the only place we can find reference and evidence of Hanukkah in the New Testament.
I have often asked myself, I’m I missing something essential in my faith walk with God? The Hanukkah story applies to us Christians in more ways than you can imagine. One can make the argument that none of this applies to us today. However the apostle Paul emphatically informs us that we have been grafted into the true vine. That does not mean that we have become Jewish, but more than that it means that we are one in Christ. In fact, Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Therefore there is no divide between Christianity and Judaism; we serve the same true one and living God. Furthermore, we must all realize that without Judaism there would be no Christianity. Christianity is a result of, and can only exist because of Judaism. Without the history of the Jews, Christianity has absolutely no context period. If one is to only read a copy of the New Testament, he would be totally confused as to what is being said. In other words, the New Testament only makes sense because of the Old Testament, and vice versa. Our faith is tightly knitted to Hebraic tradition and all of our Christian roots are deeply engrained in Judaism. Therefore to separate ourselves from Judaism is simply living in denial. It is ironic to me that the church rejects customs and traditions with very rich spiritual significance, and yet embraces holidays with pagan origin. Churches everywhere host Easter egg hunts every year without understanding or even caring to know where the tradition came from. Some churches even celebrate Halloween, some aspects of Christmas, and other pagan holidays without thinking twice. Christmas trees are in every home and church entrances without a clear basis for the practice. Yet when it comes to celebrations such as Hanukkah which bears much spiritual meaning, it is seen as irrelevant.
There is a certain level of ignorance in the Christian church that teaches people to not question what they are told. Most of us do things because it is what we have been taught by others who didn’t know any better themselves. Hence we are taught what to think, rather than how to think for ourselves. I must admit that I have been a victim of the same type of mindset. In my early Christian years I have ignorantly condemned the Jewish people because it was what I heard from the pulpit. We call them stiff-necked and stubborn. We love to talk about their 40-year rodeo in the wilderness, yet the church is doing the very same thing today. In fact the church is far guiltier now than the Israelites were then. For many decades now the church has lost its way and can’t seem to find it. Let me remind you that we ought to be very careful about the judgment we pass on Jewish people. They are still God’s chosen people and nothing will ever change that. We should all be humbled at the fact that we are even given a seat at the masters table and not get beside ourselves and be puffed up about it. Like Jesus said, he that is without sin cast the first stone.
In closing, like the Maccabees, Hanukkah reminds us that we must not intermingle Christianity with this world’s pagan system. Christianity must not be combined or mixed with anything that will threaten its authenticity. Hanukkah reminds us that we must contend for the faith that was delivered to us. We must be willing to fight for what we believe to be true and not give in under the pressure this pagan society is pushing. Unlike the world then that was being Hellenized, the world now is being postmodernized. It is a new age philosophy that says there are no longer any absolutes. It is an anti-Christ agenda that is against everything that identifies with Christ and declares our Bible irrelevant. Secondly, it reminds us that we are to live holy. Similar to the Jewish temple, our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit and must not be desecrated by sin and immorality. According to Paul, “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body[a] and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Therefore it is imperative that we keep our temple consecrated for God to fill us and use us for His glory. Paul said, “But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay, some for honor and some for dishonor. Therefore if anyone cleanses himself from the latter, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work” (2 Tim 2:20-21).
In addition, it also reminds us that even if we sin, we can rededicate our lives to God. 1 John 1:9 says,“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”John goes on to say, “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). Hanukkah reminds us that prosperity isn’t always a sign of God’s favor. Just like the Jews who embraced Hellenism at the expense of their faith, so today Christians are giving in to the doctrine that teaches that gain is godliness. The prosperity gospel is actually doing very well in the society in which we live because people just want more. Television shows like “Preachers of L.A. are an embarrassment to the church. Many Christians are deceived into thinking that is the way God wants them to live. While nothing is wrong with being prosperous, it must never be the expense of your faith. As a final point, John 8:12, Jesus said, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life”. Hanukkah reminds us that we are now the light of the world. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to allwho arein the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”(Matt.5:14-16).
Blessed are You, LORD, our God, Creator of the lights, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to light the lights of Hanukkah
Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the universe, who has performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time.