Chanukah is one of my favorite celebrations. Although I have to admit, some believers have hassled me from time to time: “Why would you keep that holiday? Are you going back to the Law?” My answer is always, “Well, what would Jesus do?” John 10:22-23 says, “Then the Festival of Dedication took place in Jerusalem and it was winter. Jesus, (or Yeshua, his Hebrew name), was walking in the Temple complex in Solomon’s Colonade.” Chanukah is the Hebrew word for “dedication.” So obviously, Yeshua made the trip from Galilee to Jerusalem to observe Chanukah. So why can’t I and my family enjoy it as well? It doesn’t mean everyone has to celebrate, but if someone is so inclined, why not?
In addition to the Messiah Yeshua celebrating Chanukah, it’s a meaningful and joyous holiday–not merely the Jewish Christmas. The events of Chanukah were actually foretold in Daniel 8 and 11. This morning I’m going to quickly tell the story of Chanukah and then give four signficant components of this happy celebration.
So here’s the story of Chanukah: In the 2nd century BC, between the testaments, Antiochus Epiphanes, a wicked Hellenistic king, was ruling over Syria. He was trying to unite his empire by forcing the Jewish people to stop worshiping the God of Israel and to adopt Greek paganism. Antiochus sent troops to occupy Jerusalem and forbade the practice of their biblical faith and keeping the Torah—No circumcision of baby boys, no kosher food, no Sabbath keeping. Antiochus always had delusions of grandeur. In fact, he called himself “Antiochus Epiphanes,” meaning “Antiochus God-Manifest,” equating himself with a god. He robbed the Temple treasury in Jerusalem and then defiled the Temple by sacrificing a pig to Zeus on the holy altar.
A priest named Mattathias revolted against this imposition of paganism. His sons, known as the Maccabees, led a guerilla revolt, defeated Antiochus and his pagan Greek army, and rededicated the Temple, hence giving the name Chanukah to the celebration, meaning, “Dedication.”
When the Maccabees retook the temple, it’s said that they found only one cruse of oil that had not been defiled by the pagans. It was only enough to light the menorah in the Temple for one day. It would take another week to prepare pure oil. Nevertheless, the Maccabees lit the Menorah with what they had, and according to legend, it burned for eight days. That’s why we celebrate Chanukah for eight days and burn candles every evening during this celebration. It’s also why we eat potato pancakes (called latkas) and donuts and anything else fried in oil—to remember the miracle of the oil.
Now everyone isn’t compelled to celebrate this holiday–but for messianic Jews and Gentile followers of Messiah who wish to join in, here are four significant aspects of celebrating Chanukah.
First, Chanukah is a festival of illumination and Yeshua is the light of the world. In John 8:12, Yeshua said, “I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows Me will never walk in the darkness but will have the light of life.” The Chanukiah, or the Chanukah candelabra, reminds us of the miracle of the lights at Chanukah but more importantly for us, of these words of the Messiah Yeshua. When we’re unsure of our path or we don’t know what the future holds, Chanukah reminds us that Yeshua lights our way.
Second, Chanukah is a festival of liberation and Yeshua sets those who follow Him free. He said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). The Chanukah celebration reminds us of the Maccabees winning their religious freedom but also, that Yeshua gives us our spiritual freedom. Don’t make the mistake of thinking we’re already free and don’t need freedom. We’re in bondage to bad habits, to addictive behaviors, to bad attitudes, to sin–and Yeshua alone can liberate us.
Third, Chanukah is a festival of dedication and Paul calls Yeshua’s followers to dedicate their lives to Him. In Rom 12:1, he writes, “Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship.” We’ve all heard the saying, “The problem with living sacrifices is that they keep crawling off the altar.” What a great reminder, when we remember the rededication of the Temple, to offer ourselves up to the Lord on a daily basis; to live our lives as completely dedicated to the Lord.
Finally, Chanukah is a festival of incarnation and Yeshua, the God-Man, is our messianic deliverer. It was in Jerusalem, at Chanukah, that Yeshua said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), declaring His own deity. Remember, Antiochus IV was a meglomaniac who thought he was a god. Yeshua truly is God incarnate, and made that declaration at the celebration of Chanukah. It’s a core principle of our faith—we must recognize that Yeshua redeems us, as the God-Man. As humanity, He can represent us. As deity, He is the perfect sacrifice for us. So just like Christmas, for followers of Yeshua, Chanukah is a celebration of the incarnation.
Now if anyone is inclined to celebrate two holidays this season, let me encourage you to enjoy Chanukah with your family. Light the Menorah, eat potato latkes and donuts, tell the Chanukah story of God delivering Israel, and yes, remember that the Messiah Yeshua celebrated Chanukah, and we can celebrate Him as central to this Jewish holiday.