This year, Hanukkah begins on Christmas Eve, December 24th. While it is not one of the two most important Jewish holidays (those would be Rosh Hashanah [the Jewish new year] and Yom Kippur [the day of atonement]), it has gained an important cultural significance as the Jewish alternative to Christmas.
But Hanukkah commemorates an important miracle for the Jewish people, coming at a pivotal time in the history of Israel. The holiday has some important lessons for Christians, particularly, as it has to do with the salvation of Israel from the hands of oppressors (something anticipated from the coming Messiah). In fact, some Christians celebrate Hanukkah instead of Christmas!
Christians should not dismiss Hanukkah as a foreign holiday, but take the time to remember what happened in Israel before the birth of Jesus and learn a key reason many Jews did not accept Christ as their promised Messiah.
Here are three reasons followers of Jesus should at least be familiar with the holiday.
1. It’s an important story.
Hanukkah, or “The Festival of Lights,” commemorates the miracle of one day’s oil lasting for eight days during the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
The temple needed to be rededicated because it was desecrated by a Seleucid king, Antiochus IV “Epiphanes.” Following a revolt, Antiochus looted the Temple and outlawed Judaism. In 167 B.C., he ordered that an altar to Zeus be erected in the Temple. He banned circumcision and ordered that pigs be sacrificed on the Temple’s holy altar.
These actions inspired a revolt, led by Mattathias and then by his son, Judah “Maccabee” (meaning “The Hammer”). Judah recaptured Jerusalem, rededicating the Temple in 165 B.C. He then established the Hasmonean dynasty, which threw off Seleucid rule completely in 129 B.C. Jewish independence lasted until the Roman general Pompey the Great (Julius Caesar’s great rival) conquered the city in 63 B.C.
The Hasmonean kingdom was the first time since the Babylonian Captivity (roughly 597 B.C. to 539 B.C.) that Israel governed itself as an independent kingdom. The rededication of the Temple marked the beginning of this brief period of independence, and so loomed large for the Jewish people until the establishment of Israel in 1948.
The story of Hanukkah is only alluded to in the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees — books of the Septuagint which Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians include in the Bible, but which Protestants consider apocryphal. Those accounts describe the eight-day rededication of the Temple, but they do not include the miracle of lights.
2 Maccabees does, however, refer to a festival of relighting the holy fire initiated by Nehemiah (the Old Testament prophet who helped rebuild the Temple), and it cites the 25th day of Chislev, the day on which Hanukkah begins.
The miracle of oil — when one day’s oil lasted for seven days — is widely regarded as a legend and its authenticity has been questioned since the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, Orthodox Jews believe it occurred, and there is no proof that it did not. Indeed, it seems fitting that God would bless the rededication of His Temple with a miracle.
Even if the miracle did not occur, the rededication of the Temple under Judah Maccabee is significant, as it marks the beginning of the only time between the Babylonian Captivity and 1948 that Israel was an independent kingdom.
2. It’s a major reason Jews don’t accept Jesus.
When the Jews chafed under the rule of the Roman Empire around the time of Jesus, they fondly remembered the Hasmonean dynasty and the independence they had lost. This episode in Jewish history strongly suggests that first century Jews were looking for a Messiah like Judah Maccabee — a ruler to free the oppressed people of Israel and end their domination under the thumb of Rome.
Famously, Jesus did not do this. He did not even encourage rebellion against the Empire. Instead, He encouraged his disciples to pay taxes, said “My kingdom is not of this world,” and told his followers to “turn the other cheek” when Romans asked them for help.
Christians believe that Jesus was the Messiah because He performed miracles, taught the new law, was declared the Son of God at His baptism, and rose from the dead following his crucifixion. Christians also believe He will come again, to usher in His kingdom on Earth, as many Jewish prophecies foretold.
During the time of their persecution under the Romans, many Jews desired to rebel, and Herod even killed innocent babies to prevent the rise of a new king. Other would-be messiahs did lead failed rebellions, and ultimately the Jews would be nearly wiped out in the bloody capture of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and the mass suicide of Masada in 72 A.D.
It is very likely that the history of Judah Maccabee helped discourage the Jews from following Jesus as the Messiah. With such a powerful example of God’s deliverance from political oppression in their recent history, many Jews understandably desired a military and political leader, not a humble man whose triumph over sin is represented by a cross — the humiliating instrument of death Romans used for the basest of criminals.
3. It’s a good way to address Jews’ concerns about Jesus.
To this day, many Jews reject Jesus as the Messiah because he did not fulfill their understanding of the prophecies. Jews expect this God-given leader to return the Jews to their homeland, rebuild the Temple, reign as King, and usher in an era of peace and understanding where “the knowledge of God” fills the Earth, leading the nations to “end up recognizing the wrongs they did to Israel.”
Many of these prophecies will be fulfilled by Jesus in the Second Coming of Christ. Christians believe that after Jesus’ ascension into Heaven, He will return to usher in this period of peace and understanding.
Ultimately, Christians must acknowledge that Jesus did not fulfill these prophecies — yet. But He is the Messiah because he fulfilled hundreds of Old Testament prophecies: He was born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14) in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2) and from Nazareth. He went into Egypt as a little child (Hosea 11:1). He performed miracles.
Ezekiel 37:26-27 promises that God will set His sanctuary among the people forever. Jesus fulfilled this prophecy by being the Son of God, the dwelling place of God among men, the Temple itself. He rebuilt the Temple in three days through his resurrection, and he left the Holy Spirit as the presence of God with men.
Haggai 2:6-9 prophesies that the Temple will be filled with the glory of God, and surpass the glory in Solomon’s Temple. Christians believe Jesus fulfilled this by being present in the Second Temple and through the tearing of the veil of the Holy of Holies upon Jesus’ death.
These and other prophecies can be debated, but they suggest a path forward for Christians to explain Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. Hanukkah opens a doorway to discussing the prophecies Jesus fulfilled, and the reasons Jews need not reject Him.
Importantly, Jews need not reject their cultural heritage to follow Jesus. There is a denomination of Christians called Messianic Jews who actually do not celebrate Christmas, but do celebrate Hanukkah.
Marcia Corbett, who is a congregational leader at Shaarei HaShamayim in Bellmore, New York, told The Christian Post that many Messianic Jews do not celebrate Christmas. Instead, her congregation celebrates Hanukkah, including Yeshua (their name for Jesus), who is celebrated as the main light that shines upon the world.
Corbett said that no one really knows the exact date when Jesus was born, but they glorify Him and His sacrifice every single day. She added that the 9th candle on the Hanukkah Menorah, which lights all the others and is called the Shamash, is also seen as representing Yeshua.