Jesus’ Celebration of Hanukkah

He announced a different kind of miracle/victory.

by David Brickner | December 01 1998

“Then came Hanukkah; it was winter in Jerusalem. Yeshua was walking in the Temple around Solomon’s Colonnade.” (John 10:22–23 TLV)

Hanukkah is a holiday that is so deeply steeped in tradition that it may be difficult for us to sort out the legends we love from the real miracles that happened. When Jesus went to the Temple one cold Hanukkah night, he didn’t go to defy tradition or to oppose it. But he did come to bring truth in the midst of it. We could be easily satisfied this year by legends and latkes; or we could invite curiosity into our celebration and examine his words for ourselves.

But first: what is Hanukkah really about anyway?

The Miracle of Preservation

Many are surprised that the only Bible verse mentioning Hanukkah includes Jesus. That is simply because the holiday commemorates an event that occurred after the Tanakh (the Old Testament) was written, approximately 165 BC. A Greek king named Antiochus invaded the Jewish nation and demanded that our people abandon the God of Israel and His ways.

Antiochus’ plan was forced “Hellenization.” That meant imposing Greek customs, including idolatry, on the people. It meant forbidding the practice of the Jewish religion, including circumcision. Ultimately, to ensure that no one could worship the God of Israel, Antiochus defiled the Temple in Jerusalem. He placed idols in the house of the Lord and sacrificed a sow upon the holy altar. He not only defiled God’s Temple, but he took the title “Epiphanes,” which means “God manifested,” and demanded to be worshiped. In response to his blasphemous claim to deity, the Jewish people modified his title, calling him “Epimanes” (crazy).

It was a terribly dark period in Israel’s history, but God raised up a small band of heroes led by a family known as the Maccabees (according to one explanation, Maccabee means “hammer”). They waged a successful rebellion against Antiochus and drove the Syrians out of Israel. The Feast of Hanukkah commemorates the victory that God gave the Jewish people over Antiochus and his mighty army. We call the holiday Hanukkah (dedication), because the high point of our victory was rededicating the Temple in Jerusalem.

Many legends surround this historic event, but the most famous is the “miracle of the oil.” It is said that when the Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem, they immediately set out to rededicate the Temple. But they faced a pressing problem: they needed consecrated oil to rekindle the sacred candelabra. They found only enough for one day. They would need more oil for subsequent days, but it would take a full eight days to procure enough for Temple use.

The thought of lighting this great candelabrum only to see it go out again was heart-wrenching. Yet the zeal to rededicate the Temple was so strong that, despite the dilemma, they decided to light the candelabrum. A traditional saying arose from this Hanukkah story: “Nes gadol haya sham,” which means, “A great miracle happened there.” The great miracle was that the oil, enough for only one day, continued to burn for eight whole days, which allowed for enough time to make and sanctify new oil. According to this legend, this is why we celebrate Hanukkah for eight nights, and why the hanukkiah is lit for eight nights as well.

While the story of the oil is a beautiful one, it’s difficult to verify. It isn’t mentioned in the earlier accounts of the Maccabeean revolt, such as in 2 Maccabees. The first recorded mention of the story appears much later in the Talmud. Maybe a day’s worth of oil supernaturally burned for eight days, and maybe it didn’t.

Many believe that a more likely reason we celebrate Hanukkah for eight days is that the Maccabees, upon recapturing Jerusalem, conducted a belated Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles) celebration. Remember, Solomon himself had chosen that very same feast to dedicate the Temple when it was newly built. So the eight-day festival of joy and thanksgiving would have been an especially appropriate way to commemorate the rededication of the Temple.

The miracle of Hanukkah is the miracle of God’s preserving power.

In any case, it is still appropriate at Hanukkah to say, “Nes gadol haya sham—a great miracle happened there.” The miracle of Hanukkah is the miracle of God’s preserving power. Israel’s victory over Antiochus and his mighty army showed forth that miraculous power.

God made many specific promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He vowed to preserve and sustain their descendants forever. In fact, He staked His reputation on the continuation of those promises when He declared, “If this fixed order [of the sun, moon, and stars] departs from before me … then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever” (Jeremiah 31:36).

Many enemies have attempted to annihilate the Jews throughout history! Antiochus was one of the worst. But God has always preserved us.


Jesus at the Temple on Hanukkah

The Jewish people of Jesus’ day were well aware of the events that had led to the Feast of Dedication when they approached him in the holy Temple on Hanukkah. It was in the context of that recent history that they said to Jesus, “If You are the Messiah, tell us outright!” (John 10:24 TLV).

If Jesus really was the Messiah, they reasoned, he would have the power to preserve the Jewish people from the tyranny of the Romans, just as God had preserved them from evil Antiochus. Jesus answered them with a rebuke, “I told you, but you don’t believe!” (John 10:25 TLV).

Jesus boldly asserted his Messiahship. He wasn’t the hero we expected; but he was the hero who came to rescue his people once and for all.

My sheep hear My voice. I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life! They will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand. (John 10:27–28 TLV)

Jesus’ power to preserve was not a temporal, physical power. It was eternal and spiritual—and it was based on faith in him as the Holy One of God. The victory he offered was not over Roman oppression but over the oppression of sin, death, and dark spiritual forces.

If he hadn’t been who he claimed to be, they would have been right to stone him.

The rededication of the Temple at Hanukkah was a reminder of God’s power to keep His promises and preserve His people Israel. But Jesus once declared, speaking of himself, “Something greater than the temple is here” (Matthew 12:6). And he made another astounding claim: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Remember, this is Hanukkah. Fresh in our people’s minds was the fact that they had rightly rejected the false claims of Antiochus. Now here is Jesus, standing in the Temple saying that he and the Father are one.

The reaction of the leaders was predictable: “Again the Judean leaders picked up stones to stone Him” (John 10:31 TLV). And if he hadn’t been who he claimed to be, if he hadn’t already performed signs and wonders before their eyes, they would have been absolutely right to do so.

The Miracle of Immanuel

When my people rejected Antiochus, God kept His promises, miraculously preserving them. But when the Jewish leaders wrongly rejected Jesus’ claims that day, they missed an even greater miracle than Israel’s against-all-odds victory over the overwhelming Greek army. They missed the miracle of Immanuel, God with us. That miracle gave Jesus the right to claim power to preserve those who come to him.

God does keep His promises, even when we fail to recognize it. He said through the prophet Isaiah,

Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

Jesus fulfilled these promises from God. In Him, God has proven His faithfulness to Israel and to all the world.