What Is Hanukkah and Does It Matter for Christians?

By: ICEJ USA Director Susan Michael & ICEJ Managing Editor Karen Engle

Now it was the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple, in Solomon’s porch. Then the Jews surrounded Him and said to Him, “How long do You keep us in doubt? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.” (John 10:22–24)

Many people believe Christmas is the holiday for Christians and Hanukkah is the holiday for Jews. Since Hannukah is not one of God’s feasts listed in Leviticus 23, and there is no mention in the Old Testament of the holiday or the historical events leading to its establishment, few Christians give it much attention.

Yet Jesus celebrated Hanukkah (the feast of Dedication)—and that fact alone should make Christians curious enough to investigate the possible importance of this festival to their faith.

It is no exaggeration to say that had it not been for Hanukkah, also called the Festival of Lights—celebrated today during our November/December—there may have never been Christmas. Hanukkah prepared the way for the birth and ministry of Jesus. Therefore, Christians may want to not only wish the Jewish community a Happy Hanukkah but celebrate it themselves. Let’s unpack the story of Hanukkah to better understand why.

What Is Hanukkah About?

The story of Hanukkah begins during the period between the Old and New Testaments when Antiochus IV Epiphanes became the ruler of the Seleucid Empire. While the Hellenization of the area already threatened the survival of the Jewish religion, Antiochus seemed obsessed with ensuring the demise of the Jewish faith and, thereby, the future of the Jewish people. It’s a story that sounds eerily familiar considering the events on October 7 and Hamas’ massacre of more than 1,400 Jewish men, women, and children that led to pro-Palestinian protests calling for the eradication of all Jews—not just in Israel but worldwide.

Antiochus IV Epiphanes not only murdered the high priest Onias III but slaughtered 40,000 inhabitants of Jerusalem. He then prohibited temple sacrifices and services—as well as Sabbath and feast day observations. He dedicated the temple to Zeus, destroyed the Holy Scriptures, and forced Jews to participate in heathen rites. In his attempt to destroy every trace of the Jewish religion, the final assault was the slaughter of a pig on the sacrificial altar of the temple, thereby defiling it.

The Maccabean family, from the priestly line of Aaron, led a revolt against this evil ruler and miraculously experienced victory after victory over the mighty Greek forces until, at last, the Jews could purify the temple and restore temple services. They then rededicated the temple to the Lord. Hanukkah remembers this rededication—also called the Festival of Dedication because Hanukkah is a Hebrew word derived from the word “to dedicate.”

The defeat of the Greek forces by this small band of Jewish zealots was nothing short of a miracle. God had once again demonstrated His steadfast love and faithfulness to His people by saving them from the threat of extinction. This is cause enough for celebration!

The story goes on to claim that when the Jews reentered the city of Jerusalem and the temple, there was only enough of the special oil to light the temple menorah and keep it burning for one day. But the oil miraculously burned for eight days while more was being brought from the Galilee—an eight-day trip there and back.

The story of the miracle oil is nowhere found in the intertestamental writings, and therefore, it is largely believed to be a legend. However, the very first Hanukkah was indeed celebrated for eight days, and the festival was called the Festival of Lights as early as the first century. Perhaps archeology will one day uncover more clues to the story’s authenticity—but if not, the Old Testament does provide historical and prophetic background.

A Turning Point in History

The events leading up to the Maccabean revolt were prophesied in vivid detail in the Old Testament book of Daniel. In chapter 8, the angel Gabriel described to the prophet Daniel the coming abomination of a king who would put a stop to sacrifices and desecrate the sanctuary.

This was 250 years before it occurred, indicating how serious the threat of annihilation was to the Jewish people back then. The Maccabean revolt was a turning point in history that saved the Jewish people and their religion from the threat of extinction.

This story and the existing archeological finds that support it provides further proof of the existence of the temple in Jerusalem. So while Israel’s modern-day enemies—Hamas, Hezbollah, and anyone involved in antisemitic acts—attempt to rewrite history and distort fact by denying the temple ever existed in Jerusalem (or the Jewish people’s longstanding presence in the land), the celebration of Hanukkah takes on new meaning. This is especially true when we consider what the New Testament reveals about it.

Jesus and Hanukkah

John’s Gospel references the Feast of Dedication in chapter 10. But to fully understand the significance of what the apostle wrote, we must first consider it in its proper context. To do that, we need to go back two chapters to John 8.

In verse 12 Jesus had proclaimed Himself the “light of the world” at the culmination of the Feast of Tabernacles. Every night for the previous seven nights, the temple had been flooded with light coming from giant oil-filled menorahs in the temple courts. The light was to remember when God’s presence was with Israel in the desert manifested as a pillar of fire in and over the tabernacle. Those in earshot would have well understood what Jesus meant by saying He was the “light of the word”: He was declaring He was God’s presence among them.

Clearly, many others made that connection because soon after, Jews surrounded Jesus and asked him point blank if He was their long-awaited messiah:

Now it was the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple, in Solomon’s porch. Then the Jews surrounded Him and said to Him, “How long do You keep us in doubt? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.” (John 10:22–24)

Notice Jesus had entered the temple during the Feast of Dedication. He would have surely known the story behind the feast and that the temple He stood in would not have been in operation without it.

He also would have known His Jewish brethren were waiting for an earthly deliverer who would relieve them from their oppressors—at the time, Rome. Jesus proceeded to talk about eternal life and not being snatched from the Father’s hand. But then Jesus said something profound that upset those listening to the point they took up rocks to stone Him:

I and the Father are one. (John 10:30)

When Jesus asked why they were about to stone Him, they responded, “Because You, being a Man, make Yourself God” (John 10:33). We must keep in mind that Israel knew God to be her Savior. Many verses in the Old Testament affirm this, but consider just two:

There is no other God besides Me, a just God and a Savior; there is none besides Me. Look to Me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:21–22)

Surely in the Lord our God is the salvation of Israel. (Jeremiah 3:23)

When Jesus responded to whether He was the Christ, Israel’s deliverer, He affirmed their question—indeed, He was God their Savior. Though most Jews of that day did not believe, God had fulfilled His promises to Israel to send a Savior who would be an ordinary man in appearance like those He came to save but would soon suffer and die for the sins of the world.

And this revelation took place on Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.

Christians today would do well to remember God’s faithfulness to the Jews on that first Hanukkah. Had Antiochus succeeded to annihilate the nation of Israel, it would have ended the Davidic line and there would have been no Jewish woman named Mary to become the mother of Jesus Christ.

The temple would also have not existed for the beginning of the Christmas story. The nativity narrative begins in Luke 1 in the temple with an angel announcing to the priest Zacharias that his wife would give birth to John the Baptist. It is no coincidence that God chose to begin the Christmas story in the temple, the heart of Jewish life and faith, at the time and the place to which they anticipated the return of God’s presence.

The Rest of the Hanukkah Story

But the story does not end there! The rededication of the temple took place on the 25th day of Kislev, or December 14, 164 BC. Within weeks, if not days, the evil Antiochus IV Epiphanes died. The Greek historian Polybius said that Antiochus was on an expedition to the eastern part of the empire to rob another temple when he died of a sudden illness and “certain manifestations of divine displeasure.”

Polybius hints at the real possibility that the king suffered God’s judgment. Whether he understood it to be the God of the Jews isn’t clear—but the non-canonical book of Second Maccabees claims that he did. Nonetheless, Antiochus’ sudden death is just one example of many of the demise of those who have come against the Jewish people. Indeed God blesses those who bless His people Israel and curses those who curse them (Genesis 12:3). Upon the king’s death, the Seleucid kingdom weakened and fell into irreparable decline.

The Israel Test

The Bible is clear that God will judge the nations over their treatment of the Jewish people. The Old and New Testaments both teach this, and the principal has been played out repeatedly throughout history.

The most obvious explanation is that the Jewish people are special to Him. He did not just choose them but created them through Abraham and Sarah, who was past child-bearing years, and He takes their treatment by others seriously.

More than this, God uses Israel to test the hearts of the nations, thereby exposing their goodness, which leads to blessing, or their evil intent, which leads to judgment. Some have likened Israel to litmus paper that when dipped into water shows whether the water is acidic or alkaline. Israel exposes the true condition of people’s hearts.

George Gilder, a venture-capitalist businessman, proposes in his book The Israel Test that Israel presents a moral and ethical challenge to the world and, therefore, has become the ultimate fault line. At the root of the Israel Test is the knowledge that Israel is contributing more to the human cause through its scientific, technological, and financial advances than any other country in the world, except the United States. He predicts that over the next two decades, Israel will grow into the dominant economy in the Middle East and one of the most productive economies in the world.

This is the test Israel presents to the world: What is your attitude toward people who excel you in the creation of wealth or in other accomplishments? Do you aspire to their excellence, or do you seethe at it? Do you admire and celebrate exceptional achievement, or do you impugn it and seek to tear it down?

Through the war with Hamas, God is using Israel to test the hearts of the nations—including our own—and their future will be determined by how they respond.

The Israel Test and the Church

But could it be that this same test is in operation within the church? In Romans 11 the apostle Paul addressed the attitude of the Roman church toward the Jewish people. He warned believers to ensure their attitude was humble and honoring the Jewish people. He even cautioned them about possible judgment by God if their attitude was not right.

A church that honors its Hebraic roots as wild branches grafted into the natural olive tree receives great strength and nourishment. To dishonor the very root that supports our faith brings spiritual decline, judgment, and even death. “Remember,” wrote Paul, “that you do not support the root, but the root supports you” (Romans 11:18).

Antiochus IV Epiphanes failed the Israel Test, and his kingdom is long gone. Others throughout history have also fallen short on the test and experienced decline and extinction. May our nation and churches pass the Israel Test in this current battle against God’s enemies by blessing and supporting the one nation He created to bring glory to His name.

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