The Undying Flame:
Exploring the Jewish Heart of The Feast of 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. Sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Festival of Lights graphically illuminates the Messiah’s life and ministry.
Hanukkah, an eight day celebration which begins this year on November 29, the Friday evening after Thanksgiving Day, celebrates Jewish religious freedom and commemorates the revolt by the Maccabbees against the Greeks in 167-164 BC. 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.
It is not commonly realized that John’s gospel records Jesus’ celebration of this day.
“It was the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) in Jerusalem, and it was winter. Jesus was in the Temple and the Jews surrounded Him saying, ‘How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Messiah, tell us plainly’” (John 10:22-24).
It was on Hanukkah that Christ publicly revealed his Messianic identity by proclaiming to them, “I and the Father are One” (John 10:30).
The origins of Hanukkah are revealed within the apocryphal book of 1 Maccabbees. Upon Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BC, his kingdom split into four pieces, ruled by different dynasties. The Seleucid dynasty ruled Syria and is the slice of Alexander’s kingdom pie which controlled the land of Israel, in those days called Judea. In 171 BC, a ruler ascended named Antiochus 4th, called Epiphanes, which means ‘the manifest God.’ Antiochus Epiphanes’ passionate goal was to unify his kingdom, including Judea, into one monolithic Hellenistic (Greek) culture. And so began a massive struggle: Judaism vs. Hellenism.
Antiochus believed that the Jewish religion was the obstacle standing in the way of Hellenism’s acceptance, so he made Judaism a capital offense. Ritual prostitution was established in the Temple. Possession of the Hebrew Scriptures was outlawed. Whole families of Jews were executed for their observance of the Sabbath and circumcision. A number of families who were discovered to have circumcised their sons were crucified with those babies hung around their necks. Thousands of martyrs were made. In 167 BC Antiochus Epiphanes marched to Jerusalem and ransacked the Temple. He set up an image of his god, Zeus, and desecrated the sacred Temple altar by sacrificing a pig.
In the Judean village of Modiin, the people were assembled in the town square by Greek soldiers. An altar was built, and the old priest Mattathias was ordered to sacrifice a pig for the townspeople to eat. Mattathias refused to defile himself or his people. The soldiers insisted, offering financial incentive.
Finally, another man from the village volunteered to collaborate with the Syrian Greeks. As the man approached the pig, Mattathias suddenly ran forward, assassinating the collaborator. Mattathias’ five sons drew their weapons, struck down the soldiers, and headed for the hills. They were joined by many fellow revolutionaries, 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 Hammer, Maccabee in Hebrew. Thereafter, the revolutionaries were known as The Maccabees.
After three years of Jewish guerilla warfare, the rebels achieved victory. On the 25 of Kislev, 164 BC, exactly three years from Antiochus’ abomination of desolation, the Maccabbees triumphantly entered the defiled and half-demolished Temple. There they began the process of rededication.
The undying, eternal flame of the Temple Menorah, the great seven-branched candelabra central to the worship of Israel, had been extinguished. The Greeks had desecrated nearly all of the sacred oil used for the Temple Menorah. Only a small container remained, containing a one day supply. It would take eight days for the priests to consecrate more oil. Nevertheless, although they only possessed enough oil for one day, the Maccabbees lit the Menorah.
And then, a miracle occurred. The Menorah not only burned for one day, but continued for eight full days. Thereafter, these events were 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 special 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 called the shamash, Hebrew for servant, which is used to light the other candles as they are added each evening.
As we prepare for the celebration of Thanksgiving and then Christmas, rushing headlong toward the Bethlehem manger, let us pause for a moment at the menorah and contemplate its meaning. When we look at the menorah, 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. And this shamash is the Light of that World. The true light which came into the world and illuminates us all. He is the true eternal and undying flame which spreads its light one candle at a time until all are enlightened.
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 simply 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. Are we allowing our light to shine before men so that they may glorify our Father in heaven? Or do we choose to hide our light under a bushel? Let us strive together to enjoy lives that serve to illuminate our darkening world.
How is our oil burning? Sometimes an oil change is necessary. Or perhaps we are simply a quart low. Some may feel like all that remains is one day’s supply. Scripture teaches that more oil, the Holy Spirit, is always available if the undying flame has been ignited in our souls.
This Thanksgiving and Christmas, let us focus on the menorah, remembering that we have been illuminated by the Shamash, the Servant, and have an eternal supply of oil to keep the Undying Flame brightly burning in our hearts throughout the year.
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Requiem for "The Jew at Two"
Nearly every week someone from North Texas asks me if my local radio show is still on the air. Always appreciative of an interested listener, I usually laugh and shake my head no. I pulled the plug on our radio program, The Jewish Heart of Christianity, at summer’s end one year ago. I made my debut on The Word FM, KWRD, on Saturday afternoons at 2:00 PM and broadcast for about a year. The half hour was usually divided between Bible teaching and our popular segment, “View from the Jew,” when I would report and opine on current events affecting the Jewish people and Israel. Due to repeated preemptions for college sports and finding myself an oasis in the midst of a sea of infomercials, I decided to pull the program until a more opportune time. Radio was a great tool of this ministry. Keep listening -- I’ll be back.
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