In a little more than two weeks this year, from sunset on December 20th to sunset on December 28th, is the Jewish festival called Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, or the Festival of the Dedication. Many of you have probably never heard of this particular festival, although it is mentioned one time in the Bible. In this festival Jews light candles on a candle-holder called a menorah, with one candle in the middle and eight candles, one for each of the eight days of Hanukkah, with four on one side and four on the other. They tell stories about the intervention of God in the history of the Jewish people, how He delivered them from the oppression of a Greek ruler who slaughtered pigs in the temple, defiling it.
Why am I talking about this day today? My purpose today in talking about this unfamiliar holiday to you all is somewhat complicated. First, I would like to introduce you all to the meaning of Hanukkah from scripture. Then I would like to show how and why this festival is permissible for Christians to keep. Finally, I would like to talk a little bit about why we can keep Hanukkah according to the Bible and not other holidays that take place around this time. I hope, therefore, that you will all learn quite a lot as we talk about Hanukkah and its observance from scripture.
Then They Shall Take Away The Daily Sacrifices
The full story of how Hanukkah came to be is told in the book of 1st Maccabees. Unfortunately, that book is not in your Bibles, nor mine for that matter. So, instead of quoting from 1st Maccabees, which is a history book about the 2nd century BC and of a successful Jewish war of independence at that time, what I will do instead is provide a biblical passage that talks about the time period of the establishment of the festival of Hanukkah and give a brief summary of the history of that time for you all.
We read of this time period in Daniel 11:29-35. Daniel 11 is the longest continuous prophecy in the entire Bible, and the time span of this prophecy ranges from the 4th Century BC all the way into the future, at the time of the end. During most of this passage, the kings of the North and South are Syria in the North and Egypt in the South, with the land of Judah between them as they war back and forth. Daniel 11:29-35 reads as follows: “At the appointed time he shall return and go toward the south; but it shall not be like the former or the latter. For ships from Cyprus shall come against him; therefore he shall be grieved, and return in rage against the holy covenant, and do damage. So he 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, purify them, and make them white, until the time of the end; because it is still for the appointed time.”
Let us paint the picture of this time. It was in the 2nd Century BC, under the reign of a wicked Greek monarch named Antioches Epiphanes, who ruled over the Syrian Seleucid Empire. After his conquest of Egypt was denied because of a Roman army sent in defense of their Egyptian allies, he returned angry against the Jews and seeking to loot the temple so he could get the wealth denied by being refused Alexandria. He charmed and flattered those Jews who abandoned the circumcision, who adopted Greek customs, and who rejected God’s law. However, his army slaughtered and enslaved many people—40,000 killed and 40,000 enslaved in a single attack on Jerusalem alone—who refused to submit to him. He tried to force priests to sacrifice pigs, and he defiled the temple by slaughtering a pig inside of it and putting inside of it the abomination of desolation—in this case a statue of Zeus, the chief god of the Greeks.
And this is where Hanukkah comes in. Before the sacrifices could continue after the temple had been defiled, the temple had to be cleansed of the pig blood and fat, and the statue of Zeus had to be removed. In addition, the temple had to be sprinkled again with the blood of a red heifer to be cleansed, after it had been physically cleaned, so that it could once again be ceremonially pure. All of this takes time. The priests and Levites in charge of the work only had enough oil for one day, but the oil lasted for eight days while the work of cleaning the temple went on, all the way until the temple had been re-consecrated for use for the daily sacrifices. And so, in honor of this miracle, those Jews who obeyed and respected God’s laws started celebrating a sort of Thanksgiving festival for God’s miraculous involvement in their efforts to obey Him. They called it the Festival of the Dedication, for it was the dedication of the temple that the festival celebrated. Since the miracle involved the lights lasting for eight days, it also became known as Hanukkah, the festival of lights.
The Festival of the Dedication
This festival, as I mentioned earlier, is still kept to this day. It is my custom, whenever I am able to do so in the Tampa area, to visit some Messianic Jewish friends of mine who keep Hanukkah. The story of the festival of Hanukkah from 1st Maccabees is recited, the candles are lit, songs are sung, and we enjoy plenty of good Jewish food and wholesome conversation. I tell you all of this because Hanukkah is an acceptable festival to celebrate in God’s eyes.
How do we know this? Well, for one, we know this because our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ kept this festival Himself while He was in the flesh . Let us turn to John 10:22-30, and read about a particularly memorable event in Jesus Christ’s ministry that occurred during Hanukkah. John 10:22-30 reads as follows: “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.”
The Jews did not like this message—in fact, they tried to stone Jesus Christ for it. But Christ’s message makes perfect sense in light of the context of the events of Hanukkah itself. Let us note first that Jesus Christ was keeping Hanukkah in the temple. Even though Hanukkah is not and has never been a commanded holy day of God, the fact that Jesus Christ celebrated it means it is perfectly acceptable for us to do so, especially if we have a Jewish background or a passionate interest in biblical history. Additionally, we read earlier in Daniel that those who are godly and obedient to the law of God will be purified for the time of the end, when they will wear white. This is what Jesus Christ refers to as His believers who are granted eternal life and who will never perish or be snatched from His hand. Jesus was tying God’s actions in the first Hanukkah to His own preaching and mission.
There is more, too. Just as the passage in Daniel 11 talked about those who were corrupted by Greek ways and who joined the righteous Jews by intrigue, so too Jesus made a separation between His flock—that is those who truly believed and obeyed God—and those who were not of His flock, who were hypocrites. By showing the unity between His actions and those of our Father in heaven, Jesus pointed out the connection between the miracles of Hanukkah and Christ’s own mission on this earth. Because Hanukkah was permissible for Jesus Christ to keep, it is therefore also permissible for us to keep, if we wish. But no scripture commands its observance.
Commanded, Permitted, Forbidden
Let us now examine the difference between three types of holidays. Let us determine what is the difference between those days that are commanded for believers, whether in ancient Israel or today, to keep, those days that believers are permitted to keep, and those days that believers are forbidden to keep. Are the boundaries arbitrary, that is, made up, or are there real differences that we can recognize between such festivals so that we can obey God as He wishes.
It is not hard to determine which sort of worship is commanded by God for us to keep. In Leviticus 23, God commands us to keep the Sabbath and the Holy Days. In Leviticus 25 we are commanded to keep the Sabbath and Jubilee years as well. All of these, as well as the millennial reign of Jesus Christ on earth, are connected as part of the observance of the Sabbath, which is the fourth commandment within the Ten Commandments. Again, that which is a part of God’s Holy Days is commanded for believers, a commandment that has not changed since the very creation when God set the signs of the seasons and rested on the Sabbath day when His work was completed. This is the first category, those celebrations that are commanded by God.
Hanukkah, along with several other festivals, falls under the second category of observances, and that is those observances that are permitted for believers to keep. Some of these observances are listed in the Bible—Purim is another example, which like Hanukkah is mentioned in the Bible (in the book of Esther) and deals with God delivering his people from genocide at the hands of the wicked Haman. Since it is a festival that celebrates God’s action in the course of history, like Hanukkah, it is permissible for believers to keep because it honors God for His actions. Festivals like Thanksgiving or other civil holidays that recognize the role of divine providence in human history are also permissible to be kept for this reason, because God is involved in human history and it is entirely proper to recognize that fact.
However, there are some observances that are forbidden to Christians. These festivals are forbidden because they spring from pagan festivals dedicated to false gods, with pagan practices that are often symbolic of fertility. These festivals are connected to the solstices or equinoxes, like Christmas, which was taken from the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Some of them deal with pagan symbols like eggs and rabbits, like Easter, a typical heathen fertility ritual. Other festivals worship or invoke heathen spirits and deal in the worship of demons and in immoral practices. These ways of the heathen are entirely unacceptable for believers, whether in ancient Israel or as Christians, to adopt or follow. We are not to copy such habits or to try to give them a Christian name while continuing to follow the pagan customs behind them. To engage in pagan worship practices is to be treacherous and disloyal to God.
Let us look at one last scripture that deals with that point. Deuteronomy 18:9-14 gives us a short list of evil customs and a general approach for dealing with the pagan worship practices of others. Deuteronomy 18:9-14 reads as follows: “When you come into the land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices wtichcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the Lord, and because of these abominations the Lord your God drives them out from before you. You shall be blameless before the Lord your God. For these nations which you will dispossess listened to soothsayers and diviners; but as for you, the Lord your god has anot appointed such for you.”
Here we see that Israel was specifically prohibited from learning to follow the religious practices of the heathen nations around them. These worship practices were corrupt and abominable, and Israel was to destroy those nations rather than to copy their religious customs. When we practice heathen religious customs, we act in a way that is abominable to God, and so therefore we ought to carefully examine our customs to make sure that paganism cannot be found there.
Let us therefore conclude. Today we have been mostly talking about the festival of Hanukkah. This is a festival that Jews (and some Christians) celebrate as a historical holiday in remembrance of God’s deliverance of the Jews during very difficult times from the oppression of the Seleucid Greeks. While this particularly festival is not commanded to be observed, it is an entirely proper and acceptable time to worship God and praise His involvement in history to deliver His people from oppression. Let us therefore take this opportunity to thank God for not being so remote from the affairs of man that he does not intervene in history at times, so that His will may be accomplished. Let us also remember that Jesus Christ Himself kept the festival of Hanukkah while He walked this earth, and therefore it is acceptable for us to keep this day also. Finally, let us remember that some festivals and observances are commanded by God, such as the biblical holy days (as well as the Sabbath year and Jubilee), some are permitted (like Hanukkah and Thanksgiving), and some (like Christmas and Easter) are forbidden to Christians. Let us remember this truth, and let us practice it also, so that our observances may be pleasing and acceptable to God.