The Undying Flame: Christ the Light in Hanukkah
Each year as winter approaches and we prepare to celebrate the birth of the King of the Jews, we often remain oblivious to the companion holiday of the season, Hanukkah. Did you miss it this year? Although overshadowed by Christmas, the Festival of Lights graphically illuminates the Messiah’s life and ministry.
Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration beginning each year on the 25th of the Jewish month Kislev, which usually falls in December. (It fell on December 4 this year.)On that day, the Jewish people celebrate religious freedom and remember the Maccabbean revolt against the Syrian Greeks in 167–164 B.C. Although commonly known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah actually means dedication. The Jews liberated the Temple and rededicated it to the service of God.
Many Christians do not realize that we find this holiday in the Scriptures. Jesus celebrated Hanukkah as recorded in John 10:22–24: “Then came the Feast of Dedication [Hanukkah] at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. The Jews gathered around him, saying, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense?If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.’”
It was on Hanukkah that Christ publicly revealed His Messianic identity by proclaiming to them, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).
Historical Background. Hanukkah is the one Jewish holy day which originated in the period between the two Testaments. We find the story in the apocryphal books of 1 and 2 Maccabbees. When Alexander the Great died in 323 B.C., his kingdom split into four pieces, ruled by different dynasties. The Seleucid dynasty ruled the Syrian part of Alexander’s kingdom, which included Israel—in those days called Judea.
In 171 B.C. a ruler ascended named Antiochus IV, called Epiphanes, which means the manifest god. Antiochus Epiphanes’ passionate goal was to unify his kingdom, including Judea, into one monolithic Greek culture. And so began a massive struggle between cultures: Judaism vs. Hellenism.
Antiochus believed the Jewish religion was the main obstacle keeping the people from accepting Hellenism, so he made the practice of Judaism a capital offense. He established ritual prostitution in the Temple. He outlawed possession of the Hebrew Scriptures. And he executed whole families of Jews for observing the Sabbath and circumcision. A few families who circumcised their sons were crucified with those babies hung around their necks. Thousands more were martyred.
In 167 B.C. Antiochus Epiphanes marched to Jerusalem, entered the Temple and ransacked it. He then set up an image of his god, Zeus. On the sacred Temple altar, he sacrificed a pig.
In the Judean village of Modiin, soldiers assembled all the people in the town square. They built an altar and ordered the old priest Mattathias to sacrifice a pig for the people to eat. Mattathias refused to defile himself or his people. The soldiers insisted, offering great financial incentive.
Finally, another man from the village volunteered to collaborate with the Syrian Greek soldiers. As the man approached the pig, Mattathias rushed forward and assassinated the collaborator. The five sons of Mattathias drew their weapons, struck down the soldiers, and headed for the hills. Many fellow revolutionaries joined them, and so began a lopsided revolt against the mighty Syrian Greek Empire.
Soon after, the leadership of the ragtag Jewish army passed to Mattathias’ son, Judah, nicknamed the Hammer, or in Hebrew, Maccabbee. Thereafter, the revolutionaries were known as The Maccabbees.
The Menorah. After three years of Jewish guerrilla warfare, the band of rebels achieved victory. On the 25th of Kislev, 164 B.C., exactly three years from Antiochus’s abomination of desolation, the Maccabbees triumphantly entered the defiled and half-demolished Temple. They then began the process of rededication.
The undying, eternal flame of the Temple menorah, the great seven-branched candelabra so central to the worship of Israel, had been extinguished. The Greeks had desecrated nearly all of the sacred oil used for the menorah. Only a small container remained, containing a one-day supply. It would take eight days for the priests to consecrate more oil. Nevertheless, the Maccabbees lit the menorah.
It burned for one day. Then a miracle occurred. The menorah kept burning for eight full days. Judah Maccabbee declared that these events would be commemorated by an annual holiday, Hanukkah, the Feast of Dedication. Understandably, the people also called it Hag ha Urim—the Festival of Lights. As the holiday became popular, a tradition of lighting miniature menorahs began within Jewish homes during the eight-day celebration. These menorahs had eight branches, one candle for each evening of the holiday, with an additional ninth branch elevated in the center. This center candle is known as the shamash, Hebrew for servant, which is used to light the other candles as they are added each evening.
The Undying Flame. As we make a mad rush toward the Bethlehem manger in anticipation of Christmas, let us pause for a moment at the menorah and contemplate its meaning. When we look at it, we see a beautiful portrait of our Messiah. Each candle is specially lit by the shamash, the servant candle. Scripture teaches us that Jesus is God’s shamash—the servant of the Lord (Matt. 12:18). And this shamash is the Light of the world. He is the true light that came into the world and illuminates us all. He is the eternal and undying flame, which spreads its light one candle at a time.
And it is the Light of the world, the shamash, the one who in the Temple boldly declared His divine identity, who is the true Epiphanes, the manifest God. Antiochus Epiphanes was a cheap counterfeit whose flame sputtered briefly and then died out.
The rededication of the Temple was a turning point in Jewish history. But that magnificent Temple no longer stands. The New Testament teaches that each one of us—each individual illuminated by the Shamash—is now the temple of God. How can we dedicate or rededicate this personal temple of God?
The answer is found in the two prominent symbols of Hanukkah, light and oil. Do we let our light so shine before men that they glorify our Father in heaven? Or do we choose to hide our light under a bushel (Matt. 5:15–16)?
How is our oil burning? Sometimes an oil change is necessary. Or perhaps we are simply a quart low. Maybe we feel like all we have left is one day’s supply. We recall the tune, “Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning... ” It is reassuring to remember that the Bible teaches that more oil is always available when the undying flame has been ignited in our souls.
Let us focus on the menorah, and remember that we have been illuminated by the Shamash, the Servant, and have an eternal supply of oil to keep the Undying Flame burning brightly in our hearts throughout the year.
Steven Ger (Th.M. 94), a Messianic Jew, is founder and director of Sojourner Ministries. He is also the producer of the video, The Unleavened Messiah: A Portrait of Christ in the Passover.