December 7, 2023

Jesus and Hanukkah

Every year, Jewish families around the world celebrate Hanukkah, the joyous festival of lights. Children light the menorah and for eight nights families remember the remarkable story of deliverance that Hanukkah commemorates. With all the conflicts, not only in Israel, but around the world, we long for true deliverance–light that can bring peace to a world darkened by war, hatred, and conflict. Many Christians are familiar with Hanukkah, but did you know that Jesus celebrated Hanukkah? In fact, the Savior gave a powerful sermon during this festival of lights helping us better understand his divine role as Messiah, Deliverer, and Redeemer!

The story of Jesus and Hanukkah begins shortly after He traveled to Jerusalem for the Feast Tabernacles–or Sukkot (see John 7:2). Tabernacles celebrates the final harvest at the end of each year and clearly foreshadows the final harvest of God and the coming Messiah. Jesus appears to have afterwards remained in Jerusalem until the time of Hanukkah which, depending on the lunar calendar, occurs anywhere from late November to the end of December. [1] During this period Jesus often taught in the temple, declaring to listeners, “I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved.” (John 10:9). and “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep.” (John 10:14). “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, … and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.” (John 10:16). Why so many metaphors about sheep? Well, we’ll get to that later.

John’s Gospel records that shortly after the Savior made these powerful statements, Jesus was worshiping within the temple complex at a place called Solomon’s porch (John 10:22-23). Jerusalem’s majestic temple was undergoing a massive renovation started four decades earlier under Herod the Great (see John 2:20)--yes, the same Herod who’d tried to slay Jesus as an infant. This project doubled the area of the Temple grounds, [2] adding three expansive porches or colonnades, and many other impressive changes.

Solomon's Porch in Herod's Temple looking towards the south east

The easternmost colonnade, however, or Solomon’s porch, remained mostly unaltered because of the steep valley upon which it was built. It was so named likely because this porch dated to the original Solomonic Temple. Compared to a grand new porch like the imposing Royal Stoa with its coffered ceilings and large apse where the priestly counsel, or Sanhedren could meet, Solomon’s porch was far simpler in design. [3] Nevertheless, it provided ample shade and also would have served as a windbreak against the cold easterly winds coming off the Kidron valley. [4] Jerusalem only receives snow every few years, but winter conditions could still be harsh and this porch likely gave Jesus and his listeners welcome protection. 

The Royal Stoa with the apse where the Sanhedrin met

This location also featured a stunning view of the whole temple grounds with the gold-covered facade of the temple and the intricately carved stone of the surrounding courts and chambers. From this vantage point, Jesus and His listeners likely would have observed the many sheep being led through various gates of the court of the women, providing a fitting backdrop for His timeless metaphors wherein He declared Himself the gate and the Good Shepherd.

Hanukkah was a time for Jews to commemorate the dramatic events of almost two centuries earlier. About 170 BC, the Greeks under Antiochus IV captured Jerusalem and desecrated God’s temple. A statue of Zeus was erected inside its precincts and pigs sacrificed on the altar. Jews were understandably furious. Under the leadership of  a priestly family known as the Maccabees, Jerusalem and God’s temple were recaptured in 164 BC. Both temple and altar were rededicated and sacrifices to the Lord renewed. For this reason, the Gospel of John calls Hanukkah the “feast of dedication” (see John 10:22).

Priest lighting menorah

According to later tradition, as priests tried to relight the temple menorah, only enough consecrated oil remained for the lamps to burn for a single day. Yet, its flames lasted eight days, enough time to consecrate new oil. Even into modern times, Jews celebrate this miracle by lighting the menorah for eight nights. We don’t know exactly when this tradition started, but the most significant and celebrated Hanukkah event in Jesus’s day would have been the rededication of the temple and altar.

Knowing this background, let’s review the story of Jesus and His Hanukkah message. As He taught at Solomon’s porch, the people started inquiring in earnest, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” (John 10:24 NIV). Especially at Hanukkah, the Jewish people would have yearned for a messianic figure who would free them from Roman oppression. The Hebrew word Messiah, like the Greek word Christ, means “anointed one.” In the Bible three main groups were viewed as messiah-like: prophets, priests, and kings. Jews saw these select individuals as sent from God. Anointing them with oil physically symbolized the authority God had poured down upon them. Figures such as King David, Solomon, and Aaron the high priest became inseparably connected with ideas of power and deliverance. So we can understand why during the festival of Hanukkah, the people were again seeking a new messiah.

Jesus teaching in Solomon's Porch

Notably, Jesus does not respond to their question directly. According to John’s Gospel, He replies, “I told you, and ye believed not: the works that I do in my Father's name, they bear witness of me. But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep.” (John 10:25-26). In other words, Jesus doesn’t offer a simple yes or no if He was the promised Messiah. Instead, He tells His listeners that they ought to already know the answer because His works done in His Father’s name already bear witness of this fact. He then states, “I and my Father are one.” (John 10:30). This was more than many listeners could take and they took up stones–perhaps rubble from ongoing construction–to kill him. Jesus then asked why they wanted to stone him? The answer was quite simple. He had claimed to be one with God. It was one thing to claim he was the anointed one, similar to kings  and priests of the past. But Jesus was claiming to be the son of God, and one with the Father!

Jesus’s next words bring it all back to Hanukkah. He announces that He is the one “sanctified” or “consecrated” by the Father (John 10:36). The word used in this instance is the same Greek word that is used when referring to the dedication of the Tabernacle of Moses. [5] In essence, because Hanukkah was a feast commemorating the rededication of the desecrated temple, Jesus had announced, “God has dedicated me!” The scriptures tell us that the ancient Tabernacle and later temples were the literal dwelling place of God’s presence. At these holy sites, Israel communed with and became “at-one” with God. Jesus had boldly asserted that He was now that consecrated place! He was the Anointed One where people could come to become one with God.

Throughout this interchange Jesus repeatedly insists that He does His Father’s works to show that He truly is the anointed Messiah, having God’s authority. His works and the Father’s are the same, much as the servant of a landowner is authorized to act in the landowner’s name as a demonstration of unity, power, and authority. By doing His Father’s works, Jesus represents the exact same unity, power, and authority. 

It might have been easier if Jesus had simply declared Himself the Messiah. But, in this instance, He chose to teach by example–reinforcing over and over that he was one with God because he did His Father’s works! In essence, Jesus declares, “I’ll tell you who I am by how I live, not by just what I say!” 

How can we follow the Savior’s supreme example of oneness with the Father? Just as Jesus said, it is by doing God’s works. Christ’s unity with His Father doesn’t seem to mean a physical unity as much as a unity in purpose. His example powerfully emphasizes that we, too, must strive to become one with God by humbly doing God’s works.

As we ponder these sacred lessons from Hanukkah, let us look past the labels of Catholic, Baptist, Mormon, Evangelical, or any other label we might give and focus on the all-encompassing title of being a true Christian. One anointed by His Holy Spirit to act, not just in name, but also in deed. Let us do the works of the Father by serving our neighbor, feeding the poor, empowering the powerless, and lifting the widow and orphan. Doing the works of the Father brings power into our daily lives. Power that helps us overcome all things, bringing light into our lives, through Christ Jesus.

[1] Hanukkah, Wikipedia
[2] Second Temple, Wikipedia
[3] Roger Leibi, The Messiah in the Temple, pg. 181.
[4] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel of John I-XII, pg. 405.
[5] Brown, pg. 404, 411

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