“JESUS CELEBRATES HANUKKAH”
Believe it or not, Jesus of Nazareth actually celebrated Hanukkah. Hanukkah is mentioned only once in the entire Bible – here in John 10, where it is called the Feast of the Dedication. And notice: Jesus was there! Hanukkah was never commanded by God in Scripture. It was a patriotic holiday. It was a sort of Independence Day. Hanukkah was established to celebrate a Jewish victory over the Greeks in the year 164 BC, about 185 years before the events of John 10.
Back around 175 BC, the Jews were being ruled by a Greek king named Antiochus the 4th, who lived in Syria. In 175 BC, the Greek king begins a bold new program to take the Jewish nation and turn them into Greeks. First, he abolishes the Jewish local government. He grants citizenship only to Jews who were willing to adopt the Greek way of life. Next, the king replaces their Jewish way of life with Greek culture, Greek clothing, and Greek athletics. He even builds a gymnasium in Jerusalem. He uses sports to try and drive a wedge between the Jews and God. Before long, even the young Jewish priests are spending all their time working out and throwing the discus.
We can appreciate how much the Jews wanted to be just like their pagan neighbors. They wanted to fit in. They wanted to be winners, not losers. They wanted to be a part of the ruling culture. Antiochus does all he can to make the Jews into Greeks. As time goes on, Antiochus begins to have delusions of grandeur. He sets up statues of the Greek gods made to look like himself. He gives himself the title “Epiphanes”, which means “God on display”. Finally, Antiochus makes a move so shocking, no Greek ruler had ever went so far before: religious persecution.
In the past, others had tried to get Jews to worship additional gods. Antiochus is the first who tries to actually exterminate Judaism. He orders the Jewish religion to be replaced with Greek religion. He orders an end to the Sabbath and the Jewish feasts. He orders an end to circumcision. He orders hogs and other non-kosher animals to be offered in sacrifice. And he orders Greek idols to be set up throughout the land. The word goes out: “Whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.”
The king’s commands are carried out. In mid-December 167 BC, the Jewish temple is rededicated to the Greek god Zeus. A statue of Zeus (made to look like the Greek king) gets set up in the Temple. Pigs are offered in sacrifice, and the sacred courts are filled with Greeks partying and having orgies, defiling the sacred ground. (This was the first defiling of the Temple spoken of by the prophet Daniel.) Possession of the Scriptures becomes a crime punishable by death. One congregation is burned alive for secretly observing the Sabbath. Conservative Jews are humiliated by being forced to walk in parades honoring the wine god wearing pagan wreaths of ivy. Finally, the entire population is lined up and forced to eat pork. Most choose to live and do so. Some refuse, and are brutally beaten to death.
At last, some people in one small village resist the king’s orders. An official from the king comes to town to force them to perform a Greek sacrifice. He invites an old priest named Mattathias to do the honors. When the priest refuses, another Jew steps forward to perform the sacrifice. But before he can do so, the old priest rises up and kills both the Jew who tries to take his place, and the official from the king. He tears down the Greek altar. Then he cries, “Let everyone who is zealous for the Law of God follow me!” And he and his sons flee into the hills to fight a terrorist guerilla war against the Greeks.
One of the old man’s sons named Judah takes over as leader of the rebels. Judah proves to be so powerful in battle that they nickname him Judas Maccabeus, meaning “Judas the Hammer”, from which we get the name Maccabee. After a number of surprising victories where he and his men were the underdogs, Judas Maccabeus drives the Greeks out of the Temple and recaptures their holy city. Then they cut down the bushes that had grown up in the Temple courtyard, repair the ruined chambers of the priests, get rid of the idols, and rebuild the altar of the Lord.
Finally, one morning in mid-December of 164 BC, exactly 3 years after the Greeks had defiled the Temple, Judas and his followers offer sacrifice on the new altar and rededicate the newly cleansed Temple with joyful song. They hold an 8-day celebration, which has been observed ever since. It is called the Feast of the Dedication, which is what the word Hanukkah means. Today, the Jews light candles for each of the 8 days of this holiday. They also exchange presents, much as we do at Christmas.
So Hanukkah was a sort of Independence Day, a day they gave thanks that God had set them free from the guy who had tried to exterminate their faith. The freedom they won that day, however, lasted only 100 years, until the Jews get so weak because of civil war that the Romans step in and take control of the government. The Romans do grant the Jews freedom of worship and considerable freedom to maintain their customs and govern themselves. But the Jews are no longer as free as they once were. And so Hanukkah was a time when the Jews longed for the coming of their long-awaited Messiah, asking themselves, “When will He come?” Let’s read what happens when Jesus goes up to celebrate Hanukkah. (Read John 10:22-33)
At an Independence Day festival like Hanukkah, where people were asking, “When will our Messiah appear?”, it only makes sense for the crowd to ask Jesus, “Are you the Messiah? If you are, quit beating around the bush, and tell us in plain words.”
Jesus says that He has already answered their question. The problem is that they have refused to listen. Jesus’ deeds are proof of who He is; His deeds testify to His greatness. If these scoffers refuse to follow, it is not because Jesus is not the true Shepherd, but because they are not real sheep. Anyone who belongs to God’s flock will recognize the Shepherd’s voice, and Jesus says that no one will be able to snatch His sheep out of His hand. If a person truly belongs to Christ, neither the world nor the devil nor that person’s own rebellious nature will be able to tear them away from Christ. Anyone who is truly hooked on Jesus will never be able to throw the hook. If we ever do succeed in shaking loose, perhaps we were never really hooked to begin with.
The reason Jesus’ sheep are secure in His hands is because His hands are God’s hands, and no one can pry away property that belongs to God. “No one can snatch them out of the Father’s hands.” If no one can snatch believers out of the Father’s hands, no one can snatch them out of Jesus’ hands. What is Jesus saying here? they mutter to themselves. In case they still don’t understand, Jesus finally makes it perfectly clear: “I and the Father are one.”
You can hear the crowd gasp! They asked Him a question; He gave them an answer, all right! Only the answer to them sounds downright blasphemous. Whatever you do at Hanukkah, don’t claim to be God, unless you want to get used for target practice! How ironic, how bizarre, that on that day when they’re celebrating their victory over that villain who sets up His image in the Temple and claims to be a god, Jesus stands in the Temple and declares, “I and the Father are one.” No, Jesus doesn’t mean one with God in some metaphoric or symbolic sense. He means that He IS God, and His audience understands Him correctly. You can tell by the fact that they pick up stones to throw at Him. Jesus asks them why. They answer, “Because you, being a man, make yourself God.”
Jesus doesn’t say, “I’m sorry, guys. You misunderstood me. I wasn’t really claiming to be God.” No, Jesus defends Himself. But His argument fails to convince the crowd, and only by slipping out of their hands does Jesus escape a violent end.
The Feast of Hanukkah is the place where, as people await their Messiah, Jesus declares, “I and the Father are one.” On this day when the nation celebrates its independence and freedom from idolatry, Jesus confronts them with the fact that He is their true deliverer, the one who will truly set them free. What Jesus says at Hanukkah is the clearest expression in all the Gospels that Jesus and His Father are one God. Our response to Him makes all the difference in the world. Jesus is either an idol, an imposter like that Greek king from Syria, or else Jesus is who He said He was: the One who is God on display, the only One who can save us from sin and death.
In this season when the people of Israel celebrate their victory over the guy who tried to stamp out their faith, as they celebrate the Feast of Re-Dedication, let us rededicate ourselves to Jesus, the Messiah, God in the flesh, the One who has come to set us free. Let us remove the idols in our hearts. Let us cleanse the temples of our hearts. Let us resist the attempts of the world to stamp out what we believe, to mold us into their image. Let us welcome Christ as God in the flesh, the One who has come to rule us with justice, with wisdom, and with love, the One who has come to save us and put us right with God.
Let us pray. Lord, we re-dedicate the temples of our hearts to You. Help us to get rid of the idols inside. Help us to resist the attempts of the world to mold us into its image. Help us to welcome Jesus as our King, the One who occupies Your throne, the One who has come to set us free and put us right with You by faith. We ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.