John 10:22-30 presents an interesting and topical subject, given that we are now currently in the time of Hanukkah, referred to in that passage as the Festival of Dedication. This passage reads: “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.” Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father’s name, they bear witness of me. But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. I and My Father are one.”
It is perhaps little known that Jesus kept Hanukkah, though most ought to recognize that He lived His life as a Torah observant Jew, setting an example for us to follow. It is my purpose today to examine the context of this passage to the festival of Hanukkah, and to remember why it is important for Christians today to realize the relevance of that festival to ourselves and our relationship with contemporary culture. With a greater understanding of the meaning of Hanukkah and its relevance, we may greater understand the value of the festival for ourselves here and now.
The Bible contains two types of festivals. There are some festivals that mark the moedim, the appointed times of commanded worship. The Bible, for example, requires the seventh-day Sabbath to mark the weekly cycle. The Bible also has a monthly lunar cycle, which is counted from new moon to new moon, and though not much is known about the practices of it, the Bible does speak out against those who would condemn its practice (Colossians 2:16), and states that in the future God will be worshiped on the new moon (Isaiah 66:23). More familiar to many are the commanded assemblies of the Passover, Days of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost (Shavout), Feast of Trumpets (Yom Teruah), Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), or Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkoth). These festivals are detailed in Leviticus 23 and are periodically mentioned throughout the rest of scripture, including Acts (Acts 27:9, 18:21, 2:1).
The second group of festivals is not commanded by God for religious worship, but its commemorated within scripture as a historical remembrance of God’s providential deliverance of His people. Included in this are the festivals of Purim and Hanukkah. In Purim, which celebrates the deliverance of Jews from the genocidal machinations of the wicked Haman through the efforts of the noble Mordecai and Esther (see the biblical book of Esther).
The story of Hanukkah itself comes from the period between the end of the Old Testament (around 440BC or thereabouts, at the time of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malachi) and the New Testament, though Daniel 11:30-35 explains the historical context well: “So he [Antiochus Epiphanes] shall return and show regard for those who forsake the holy covenant. And forces shall be mustered by him, and they shall defile the sanctuary fortress; then they shall take away the daily sacrifices, and place there the abomination of desolation. Those who do wickedly against the covenant he shall corrupt with flattery, but the people who know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits. And those of the people who understand shall instruct many; yet for many days they shall fall by sword and flame, by captivity and plundering. Now when they fall, they shall be aided with a little help; but many shall join with them by intrigue. And some of those of understanding shall fall, to refine them, to purify them, and make them white, until the time of the end; because it is still for the appointed time.”
Let us compare the times of the Maccabees with our own times, to better understand the point made in Daniel and in John. (This conversation will be a lot easier to understand if you have a familiarity with the book of 1 Maccabees .) After the conquest of the Near East by Alexander of Macedon in the 330’s BC, the spread of Hellenistic Greek Culture throughout the region expanded in earnest. Included among the suite of Hellenistic culture were deviant beliefs about sexuality, a syncretistic form of polytheism, and an unwholesome focus on the beauty of the nude male form, publicly exhibited in gymnasia built throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. Many of these same problems are present in contemporary society in analogous forms.
The response of the Jews of the time was mixed. Some Jews readily assimilated and acculturated themselves with the pagan culture of the day, avoiding circumcision and eating pork and generally acquiring the cultural appearance of the pagan and heathen peoples around them. Other Jews insisted in the obedience of biblical law and sought to preserve the biblical way of life, eventually being driven to martyrdom and rebellion as a result of the aggressive assaults of the heathen Syrians. The Judeans were perfectly content to live righteously as best as they were able in their towns and villages, but aggressive heathens will not allow righteousness to be practiced–they must spread their pagan beliefs by force if necessary throughout their realms so that none oppose them or worship God even in private.
After a fierce struggle, involving a lot of deaths, the Maccabees succeeded in winning their independence from Syria, though later members of the dynasty were themselves corrupted by Hellenism despite the reason for their rule being the hostility of Judah to pagan Hellenistic belief and practice. Nonetheless, the celebration of the Feast of Dedication, the yearly reminder of God’s miracle in causing the oil to last for eight days so that the temple could be purified and restored for worship itself, was itself remembered for its ultimate promise that God would restore true worship to this earth as well as godly leadership.
In that context, the Jews asked Jesus during Hanukkah whether he would deliver them from pagan Rome as their King just as the Maccabees delivered the Jews from pagan Syria. Jesus’ response was to that he was interested not in military conquest, at that time, but in building a flock of believers, to convert and purify the body of believers (the “temple of God”) rather than engage in military acts of rebellion against Rome. His focus in His first coming was about spiritual deliverance, as the sacrificial lamb seeking to build His flock, instead of the conquering king defeating His enemies and establishing earthly rule.
Why does this matter for today? It has become increasingly rare in these times for those who profess a belief in the Bible to examine or consider (or understand) its relevance in areas outside of personal worship and private morality. However, the Bible itself is to govern all aspects of life, from sexual morality and diet to economics, penology, and government (on all levels–self, family, church, and civil). Jesus Himself kept Hanukkah because He was well aware that Israel needed deliverance. The spiritual conversion must precede the physical rule, so that a freed Israel would be in the proper state to teach the world to obey God’s way, having learned how to do obey and having developed godly character within them, which was, after all, the point of the trial in the first place, as mentioned above in the passage from Daniel.
Let us remember that God’s working with mankind has a process–those who seek to obey God will be tested and purified, put through trials, and some will suffer for their beliefs. That testing and refining is to make them more aware of the need for God to establish His rule over earth and to make us better capable of teaching others, and aware that some who are in our midst are intriguers and not genuinely faithful. When we are ready to rule and prepared to reign as kings and priests, then we will find the expansion of God’s literal kingdom on this earth. But not until then.
 A particularly accessible translation of this book may be found in: Michael D. Coogan, editor, The New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Edition (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2001), 201-244.