Hanukkah, Christmas and the Messiah
A message by Philip about the relationship between Hannukah and Christmas (with a little apologetics thrown in!)
Messiah and the Lights of Hanukkah
Hanukkah, the Jewish winter holiday also known as the "festival of Lights" derives its name from the idea of "rededication." It commemorates deeds of courage and faith among a Jewish army that resulted in triumph over evil, beating the odds, and regaining religious freedom. It celebrates a series of military victories and purification of the temple.
This year Hanukkah is observed from December 21-29, 2008. Christmas and Hanukkah overlap, with December 25 falling on the 4th day of Hanukkah. In honor of this week’s celebrations I hope to share some insights into the Christmas / Hanukkah connection. There are many beautiful and spiritual elements about Hanukkah that make it relevant for all believers. I hope you enjoy these ideas.
An Overview of the Holiday
Around 330 B.C.E. Alexander the Great conquered and campaigned to Hellenize the world. In the beginning of his reign Alexander was quite respectful of Jewish culture and many Jews began to embrace his ideals. However about 150 years after his death, one of his successors, Antiochus Epiphanes, was especially cruel and intolerant toward the Jews By 170 B.C.E. Jews were not permitted to practice their faith and were forced to adopt the Hellenistic lifestyle along with its worship of Greek idols. This threatened to wipe out all Jewish religious and cultural identity. The center of Jewish worship, the temple in Jerusalem, had been desecrated and the Jewish people could have been annihilated had it not been for the bravery and military conquest of the Jewish armies led by Judas the Maccabee. The Festival of Lights as practiced today celebrates this history. Each year Jews retell the story of Hanukkah through the lighting of candles for 8 days accompanied by a variety of traditional songs, foods, and festive activities. Although not commanded in the Torah, the celebration offers an excellent opportunity to reflect on an inspirational account of conviction and heroism that preserved the Jewish people from extinction. For that reason, it could be said that if there had not been a Hanukkah there never could have been a Christmas. For without the preservation of the Jewish people, the Jewish Messiah, the long awaited descendant of Abraham and David, the Prince of Peace could not have come. The focus of Christmas is on the arrival of a Messiah while the focus of Hanukkah is on survival of a people. In other words, without the survival there could not have been the arrival.
Setting the stage for Hanukkah:
The historical roots of the holiday go back to a dark time when Jews were facing enormous distress from the reign of a Seleucid King named Antiochus IV. A detailed description of the oppression by this King is given to us by the Jewish historian Josephus in his book Antiquities of the Jews Book 12 chapter 6:
"King Antiochus returning out of Egypt, for fear of the Romans, made an expedition against the city Jerusalem; and when he was there, he took the city without fighting, those of his own party opening the gates to him. And when he had gotten possession of Jerusalem he slew many of the opposite party; and when he had plundered it of a great deal of money, he returned to Antioch."
Two years later he came into the temple and stripped it of much of its furniture and gold. "He also emptied it of its treasures, and left nothing at all remaining; and by this means cast the Jews into great lamentation, for he forbade them to offer those daily sacrifices which they used to offer to God according to the law."
Threats and oppression against Judaism
Beyond his burning of the finest buildings and taking tens of thousands of wives and children into captivity, he also committed atrocities against the most sacred aspect of the Jewish worship:
" And when the king had built an idol altar upon God’s Altar, he slew a swine upon it, and so offered a sacrifice neither according to the law, nor the Jewish religious worship in that country. He also compelled them to forsake the worship which they paid their own God, and to adore those whom he took to be gods, and made them build temples, and raise idol altars, in every city and village, and offer swine upon them everyday. He also commanded them not to circumcise their sons and threatened to punish any that should be found to have transgressed his injunction. He also appointed overseers who should compel them to do what he commanded."
In the midst of this severe crisis there were both Jews who complied (out of fear of the penalty) with the kings orders and others who stood against it. Josephus writes, "but the best men, and those of the noblest souls did not regard him, but did pay a greater respect to the customs of their country than concern as to the punishment which he threatened to the disobedient; on which account they every day underwent great miseries and bitter torment; for they were whipped with rods and their bodies were torn to pieces… they also strangled those women and their sons whom they had circumcised, as the king had appointed, hanging their sons about their necks as they were upon the crosses."
Mattathias and his brave sons
Around this time in one of the villages lived a priest named Mattathias who had five sons: Gaddis, Simon, Judas, Eleazar, and Jonathan. Mattathias resisted the king’s orders to lead his village in sacrificing a pig on a pagan altar. " He lamented to his children the sad state of their affairs. And the ravage made in the city and the plundering of the temple, and he told them that it was better for them to die for the laws of their country than to live so ingloriously as they then did." Instead of complying with the order he slew the soldiers, overthrew the idol altar and cried out, "If anyone be zealous for the laws of his country, and for the worship of God, let him follow me". His inspiring speech ignited a revolution. He and his sons then left their village to live in the hill country to prepare for battle. Mattathias went from being a priest to leader of a renegade army. His determination and courage transformed his small band into warriors using techniques of guerrella warfare using elements of ambush and surprise to confound the armies of Antiochus. They lived in caves and forced battles to take place in rough terrain that gave them the advantage. After his death he appointed his son Simon as the father figure to govern the sons and appointed Judas as the general of the army. Mattathias knew his sons and he chose Judas for his military skills "for he will avenge your nation, and bring vengeance on your enemies."
Judas the Maccabee
Judas was called the Maccabee which was a nick name meaning – the hammer. After gaining several military victories, Judas’ army grew in numbers and strength. His powerful speeches and courageous example inspired even more loyalty among his countrymen. Consequently, his growing reputation brought dismay and anger to King Antiochus. In an effort to finally break down the resistance Antiochus decided to go after Judas with his own army along with many mercenaries. However, due to draining finances, Antiochus was forced to turn over the mission to Lysias a governor. Thus, Lysias was charged with the mission to conquer Judea, take its inhabitants for slaves, and utterly destroy Jerusalem and abolish the whole nation. Lysias made alliance with Ptolemy of Egypt in order to gain 40,000 foot soldiers. In spite of the odds, Judas inspired his men to trust in God. Josephus records,
" and when Judas saw their camp, and how numerous their enemies were, he persuaded his own soldiers to be of good courage; and exhorted them to place their hopes of victory in God, and to make supplication to him, according to the custom of their country."
Judas’ military leadership combined brilliant military tactics as well as concepts from the Torah " He set them in their ancient order to battle used by their forefathers, under captains of thousands, and other officers and dismissed such as were newly married, as well as those that had newly gained possessions, that they might not fight in a cowardly manner, out of an inordinate love of life, in order to enjoy those blessings."
A magnificently inspiring speech is described in detail in Josephus book Antiquities of the Jews Chapter 7.3. But even more fascinating is a description of how he fooled the enemy of Lysias by a surprise all night attack. He fought with a much weaker group of soldiers and yet his men were filled with such tremendous courage and purpose that Lysias was moved to retreat.
"Nay, indeed, Lysias observing the great spirit of the Jews, how they were prepared to die rather than lose their liberty, and being afraid of their desperate way of fighting, as if it were real strength, he took the rest of the army back with him and returned to Antioch.
Cleansing of the Temple and resuming of sacrifices
"When, therefore the generals of Antiochus’s armies had been beaten so often, Judas assembled the people together, and told them, that after these many victories which God had given them, they ought to go up to Jerusalem, and purify the temple, and offer the appointed sacrifices. But as soon as he with the whole multitude, was come to Jerusalem he found the temple deserted and its gates burnt down and plants growing in the temple of their own accord."
At the sight of the appalling condition of the temple, these valiant Jews began to cry. The signs of desecration appeared everywhere. The blood of swine had been poured out in the temple area along with altars to Greek gods and weeds littered the sanctuary. Judas then gave orders to his soldiers to purify the temple, to bring in new vessels, a new candlestick and new veils. He had a new altar of incense made and on the twentieth fifth day of the month of Kislev they lighted the lampstand and offered burnt offerings upon the new altar. Josephus comments on the amazing timing of these events:
According to Josephus, "Now it so fell out that these things were done on the very same day on which their divine worship had fallen off, and was reduced to a profane and common use, after three years time; for so it was that the temple was made desolate by Antiochus.. but it was DEDICATED anew on the same day." The word Hanukkah is the Hebrew word for dedication and thus, this act of rededication of the temple through the efforts of Judas Maccabee gives this holiday its actual meaning.
Hanukkah is a fulfillment of Prophecy
Among the many fascinating aspects of Hanukkah is the fact that the event itself had been foretold in the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Scriptures. " He said to me, "It will take 2,300 evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary will be reconsecrated." (Daniel 8:14). Daniel the Jewish wise man, who lived under the Medo-Persian rule described in advance the very history recorded by Josephus. This can be found in the eight chapter of his book. This is what Josephus had in mind when he stated, "And this desolation came to pass according to the prophecy of Daniel which was given four hundred and eight years before; for he declared that the Macedonians would dissolve that worship (for some time)." (Antiquities of the Jews Chapter 7.7)
Hanukkah Conceived as a Holiday by Judas
It’s also interesting to note that the celebration itself was the invention of Judas Maccabees. Once again our Jewish historian Josephus explains;
"Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifice of the temple for eight days and omitted no sorts of pleasures thereon but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices and he honored God, and delighted them, by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us, and that thence was the name given to that festival."
Hanukkah and Christmas – Linked?
At this time of the year the focus for Gentiles turns to Christmas celebrations. For Jews it turns to Hanukkah. Depending on the calendar it is not unusual for Christmas and Hanukah to come at the same time. As a result, some get confused about their connection if any. Although the religious emphasis of Christmas is on the birth of Jesus much could be said about the fact that Christ Mass is actually a 2nd century AD invention of the Christian church conceived as a way to pull parishioners from the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, a time of feasting and recogniton of the Winter solstice, which occurred in late December.
Unless one knows the historical background of Hanukkah it might appear that it’s just another winter holiday. It should be pointed out that Hanukkah has nothing to do with any winter celebration. The holidays however do share some things in common. They have gathered many traditions of gift giving, card sending, commercialism, feasting, family events, and songs of celebration. One major connecting theme however, that is sometimes overlooked is the celebration of light. The rest of this essay will focus on this theme and how this feature is appreciated and highlighted in both holidays.
The Messianic Light
In Isaiah 9 we find a description of the coming Messiah as a light to dispel darkness. Around 700 B.C.E. Isaiah described a light coming to the Galilee region.
A Great Light in Galilee
" In the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles by the way of the sea along the Jordan-the people walking in darkness have seen a great light on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned." These are words of hope for this geographical region that had experienced much grief, political and national turmoil. Something was going to happen to bring new life, joy, and an era of peace. We find out about the reason for this hope in verse 6 – A child would be born; a special son would be given. Someone very unique was to be born. Someone very special was coming to the Galilean region. Isaiah 9:6-7 describes a child that Rabbi’s have traditionally regarded as a reference to the Messiah. In fact this is the very text used by Handel for his holiday oratorio masterpiece known simply as the Messiah.
Who matches that description?
Even the superficial reader of the Bible is familiar with the fact that Jesus came to that very region and did much of his public ministry in Galilee. The gospels record that Jesus not only was raised in Nazareth (thus he is called Jesus of Nazareth) but toured the entire Galilean coastal towns. Those living in Galilee witnessed his teachings, his healings, his miracles, and his life changing effect on people’s lives. As recorded in Matthew,
"When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he returned to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Napthali—to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:
Land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles-the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned." From that time on Jesus began to preach, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near." (Matthew 4:12-17)
A Light to Gentiles AND the glory to your people Israel
The following scenes are seldom apart of the Christmas story and yet are so relevant to identifying this child as the promised Jewish Messiah. Following his circumcision, Jesus as a Jewish baby, he was then taken to the temple to be presented to the Lord in keeping with the command that "every first born male is to be consecrated to the Lord." Joseph and Mary (Yuseph and Miriam) in keeping with their humble economic status, came to offer a simple sacrifice of a pair of doves or two young pigeons. An amazing encounter occurred when the infant Jesus was presented in the temple. A righteous and devout Jewish man named Simeon had been told by God that he would not pass away until he saw the Messiah. On that day he was moved to come into the temple courts. Somehow he made a connection with Mary and Joseph there in the temple courts and took the child in his arms and made a very prophetic statement:
" Sovereign Lord, as you have promised you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation (Yeshua) which you have prepared in the sight of all people a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory to your people Israel."
Simeon’s prophetic statement is a reference to a fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy found in Isaiah which states, "I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open the eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42:6-7)
What Jew fits this description?
Those who claim Jesus came for the Gentiles and not for the Jews have missed this truth -that only the one who comes to reveal salvation to the Gentiles could be the Jewish Messiah. The Messiah must be the Messiah for both Jews and Gentiles. Or to look at it another way, there could never be a Messiah to the Jews if there was not a Messiah as a light of revelation to the Gentiles. In view of the fact that several have claimed to be the promised Messiah, a reasonable question would be what Jewish person ever grew up to become so influential with non Jews that he could be described as a revelation to the Gentiles? What Jewish rabbi could ever claim to be both a light to the Gentiles and a glory to Israel? Certainly history documents that no single Jewish man has ever had as much impact on both the Jewish and non Jewish world as this Jewish man, Yeshua of Nazareth.
The True Light
The Gospel according to John mentions the concept of light as a description of the Messiah more than any other writer. In John’s first chapter we are introduced to the Messiah as the Word who was with God and was God. Unlike Matthews and Luke’s account that begin with the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus, John begins with describing Jesus beginning before becoming human. He begins with the truth about Jesus unique connection /relationship to God. John seeks to explain just who was this man. John also connects Jesus with Messianic terms like Lamb of God (1:29), the One Moses spoke about (1:45), the Prophet (6:14), and Messiah (4:25), The I AM ( 8:58), the good Shepherd (10:11).
"Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In Him was life and that life was the light of men." (John 1:1-4)
In contrasting Jesus to the prophet John the Baptist, John the gospel writer calls Jesus the True Light who brings life to all men. He is the only human who could be considered able to give life to men. In that sense he is the ultimate Light.
Light has some amazing properties. For life to exist there must be light. Light is a material that is both physical and spiritual. It exposes, makes visible, brings the truth out in the open, helps one to see what’s really there. The more light – the more understanding. Light is a pure substance, it contains no impurities. Light is often associated with righteousness and goodness. For someone to be called the light means more than just being a good teacher who enlightens but rather someone who is completely honest, full of truth, who does what is right, morally pure.
The Light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it.
In contrast to light, darkness carries with it the qualities of unrighteousness, confusion, hiding, deceitful, fearful, secretive. Among the relationship of light to darkness, darkness attempts to obscure the light and yet light continues to shine forth. In several ways the properties of light and darkness vividly portray the life of Jesus and the conflict He faced in testifying to who He was. He came to bring life in terms of forgiveness of sins, restoring man to God, exposing lies and clarifying the truth, and even overcoming death. John’s gospel records a constant battle of unbelief and sin that sought to put out the light and yet Jesus shines through in the midst of it all.
That darkness has not understood the light could be interpreted in several ways. Jesus was rejected by his own people because he failed to be the kind of Messiah they wanted. Due to the political oppression of the Romans, Jewish leaders were looking for a military messiah, no doubt, another Judas Maccabee. The hearts of the people were hungry for another uprising to gain political and national independence. There was a yearning in the hearts of people for another national hero. Jesus came preaching repentance and salvation from sin. His message conflicted with their desires. They wanted freedom from Rome but according to John, the Messiah was coming as a light to offer freedom from darkness. Ultimately he became Messiah in spite of the darkness that sought to prevent it. (Psalm 2)
Jesus as the light of the World
"The True light that gives light to every man was coming into the world." John 1:9
There was darkness in the world in the first century just like there is darkness in our world in the 21st century. The darkness caused by sin is evident in the evil we hear about in the news each day: Terrorism, genocide, corruption, domestic violence, murders, kidnapping, oppression of the poor, just to mention a few examples. Biblically this is rooted in our separation from God. In response to this dark predicament comes God’s promise to bring the kind of light we need. This light must be more than just a national hero. His light must bring hope, truth, understanding, freedom, and reconciliation with God. For this to happen the light must deal with the problem of sin. As the controversy over Jesus grew more intense Jesus became more bold and clear about his claims. In many ways He provided a light guarantee. "When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." (John 8:12) He later explained this even more when he said
"If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set free…. I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin… If the Son set you free you will be free indeed." (John 8:31-36). Jesus made it clear there could be no ultimate freedom without first dealing with sin and that this promise is realized individually as we choose to follow him.
Interestingly, after Jesus makes reference to himself as the light of the world we then see him in Jerusalem at the temple during Hanukkah (John 10:22) no doubt to celebrate the observance of the rededication of the temple. It would only make sense that He who is the light of the world would be around to celebrate the Feast of Lights among his own people.
Lighting the Menorah today for believers
As the lights on the Menorah glow in the dark they remind us of the hope contained in the faith and courage of our forefathers. They remind us of the light of God’s presence as He dwelt in the Tabernacle. They remind us of God’s interventions among his people as they relied on him amidst impossible odds. We are reminded of his sovereign purpose to preserve his people until the coming of Messiah. However, the most vivid reminder of God’s light is that found in the person of the Messiah who called himself the "Light of the World". He was the light who came into the world bringing light to expose the darkness in our hearts and overcome the darkness of evil in our world. It is so fitting to light the menorah during Christmas as well as throughout the week of Hanukkah – not just because they overlap on the calendar but because they overlap in their theme of celebration of God’s light. It’s very unlikely that Judas Maccabee realized just what spiritual depth his holiday would contain someday.
At the risk of going too far I might suggest to disciples trade their Christmas tree in for a Menorah (8 branched candleholder). Instead of using lights around the tree for decorations, get some Hanukkah candles and light the candles that signify freedom. Recognize there is tremendous rich meaning found in the Hanukkah account and realize here is a holiday that is rooted in Biblical prophecy and finds fulfillment in history.
Rock of Ages
It should not be surprising that one of the most popular hymns traditionally sung on Hanukkah is also a cross over from another Christian hymn titled Rock of Ages.
Rock of ages let our song praise thy saving power.
Thou amidst the raging foe was our sheltering tower.
Furious they assailed us – but Thy arm availed us.
And Thy word broke their sword when our own faith failed us.
Should distinctions be made? Yes, Christmas was designed to celebrate the coming of the Messiah. Hanukkah is a celebration of the throwing off of pagan influences that would suppress ones faith. Both celebrations contain themes of light and triumph over evil. Like most holidays both also run the risk of getting so covered with the trappings and traditions that their original meaning easily becomes blurred. However, one thing is certain-there is no need to mix them in with any celebration of the season. The season is not the reason to celebrate. He who created the seasons and who is still in control of the seasons is the one to worship and adore. So Happy Hanukah and may you blessed as you meditate on Him who is the light of the world.
— Phillip Lester 12/27/08