It was about 168 years before the Messiah would come, and Israel was in trouble. Conquered by the Greeks about a century and a half earlier, the nation was living under Gentile rule. At first Alexander the Great had been good to the Jews, but in time he died and his generals ruled after him.
Eventually Antiochus inherited the throne. He called himself Epiphanes, which means divine”, but the Jews leared to call him Epimanes, which means “madman.” In the beginning Antiochus was not so terrible. He wanted the world to benefit from the rich cultural heritage of the Greeks: democracy, philosophy, science, art and sports. There was one drawback to his beneficent rule. He would only allow his subjects to practice the Greek religion. For the Jews, who followed only Jehovah, the one true God, this was very bad news.
Under Antiochus’ orders, the Greek armies marched through the land and set up pagan altars. Study of the Scriptures and public worship of God were driven underground. To be caught worshiping Jehovah meant death, and many Jews died rather than defile themselves by bowing to an idol.
One day Antiochus made a grand entrance into Jerusalem. In his totalitarian efforts to enforce his religious policy, he sacrificed a pig on the holy altar in the Temple. The Jewish people were outraged, and despite this persecution, refused to stop serving the God of Israel. Antiochus Epiphanes’ repressive policies continued until Mattathias, a Jewish priest, began a resistance that eventually led to the overthrow of pagan rule in Israel.
According to the account in the extra-biblical writings, Mattathias died within a year, but his son Judah took charge of the resistance. They named Judah Maccabee, which means “hammer.” He was said to be God’s hammer to smash the Syrians. History and legend are interwoven, but it seems that after three years the brave Jewish revolutionaries vanquished the Syrian oppressors.
After the enemy was defeated, the defiled Temple had to be cleansed and ceremonially purified for God’s service. When Judah rededicated the Temple for the worship of Jehovah, only one vessel of sanctified oil was found. The supply was enough for only one day, but according to legend it burned miraculously for eight days until new oil could be prepared.
Jews commemorate this “miracle of the oil” in annual Hanukkah celebrations. Hanukkah is also called the Festival of Lights and the Feast of Dedication. It is probably one of the most widely observed holidays in the Jewish calendar. For eight consecutive days in Jewish homes, lights are kindled in nine-branched lampstands called menorahs.
Besides commemorating the “miracle of the oil,” the Hanukkah menorah memorializes the rekindling of the eternal flame in the Temple after its rededication. The glowing menorah is to diffuse luminescence into Jewish homes as a vision of better days to come—a time of restoration to God.
Unfortunately, this thought may not be uppermost in the minds of many Jewish people today as they celebrate Hanukkah. As the Advent season honoring Messiah’s birth has been tainted by commercialism, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah also has been invaded by secularism. For many Jewish people Hanukkah has lost much of its spiritual significance. Yet many still regard it as a celebration of their freedom to live and worship as Jews.
While some Jewish people may not observe very much of the Jewish religion, they generally feel the need to defend it as the cornerstone of Jewish identity. Hanukkah, therefore, has become much more than a commemoration of a military victory. It has become a time to think of our Jewish forebears who fought for their identity as Jews—a trumpet call to reflect and rejoice over the preservation of our peoplehood.
Hanukkah has an application for both Jewish and Gentile believers. Let Hanukkah move us to ponder God’s great actions in history and in our own lives. As Hannukah means dedication, let it move us to ponder our dedication to God’s will and God’s ways, and to identify with God’s purposes so that the overriding goal of our lives will be to say, “Lord, work out your enterprises through me.” The overriding goal of Jesus’ life was Calvary. May we be able to say with Him, “Father, not my will, but thy will be done.”
At the Hanukkah festival (see John 10:22-31) Jesus made his boldest assertion: “I and the Father are one.” He used this feast as a platform to proclaim that He was “purely” God because He was the light of the world.
Light is pure energy. It cannot be invaded or overcome by darkness, which is simply the absence of light. By saying that He was the light of the world, Yeshua identified Himself as the pure and true God, in whom there is no darkness. In the Incarnation He invaded the darkness of our world. He came from heaven to pierce that darkness with His light.
We Jews kindle the Hanukkah lights so that seeing them we can give thanks to God for His miracles. We Jews who have found Jesus know that He is the culmination of all God’s miracles. He is the Ner Tamid, the eternal light that entered the world in Bethlehem, that starry night long ago. Let us praise God for His faithfulness, and may Yeshua’s example of total dedication stir us to fulfill God’s commission in our lives.