Hanukkah or Chanukah is not a Biblical feast, and its deeper meanings are rarely revealed, but there’s a lot more to it than lighting candles, kid’s games, and terrible chocolate. Why should Hanukkah matter to you?
2020 has been a dark year, filled with dark events that required overcoming. It’s likely that the future will require a Maccabean courage, the faith of a young Jewish girl, and the wisdom of Magi to stand up for truth when those against us are seemingly invincible. We all require a deeper walk with Jesus so we can be a light to those who clearly love darkness. It’s appropriate to prayerfully kindle candles to push back the darkness as we ask God to rekindle our faith and make us as courageous as the ancient Maccabees.
This month we will get to experience a tiny bit of what the Magi saw over Bethlehem, as the two largest planets in our solar system converge during Hanukkah, and almost perfectly align on the winter solstice. The limited conjunction won’t be nearly impressive enough to launch any Magi on a journey but mark your calendar for December 21st.
When celebrated together, Hanukkah and Christmas provide an often-missed revelation of Jesus. Hanukkah, filled with candle lighting, deep-fried foods, and waxy chocolate coins, is a veiled mystery at best. In reality, it’s a spectacular history story, with rousing victories. And it’s a glimpse of the journey the eternal God made from His Throne in Heaven to the womb of a young Jewish girl living among exiles in a village perched on a Galilean hill. And there’s a good reason Hanukkah sometimes falls on December 25th. I’ll tell you in a bit.
Let’s start our journey a century and a half before Jesus arrived, when His people faced a seemingly undefeatable foe. Hanukkah tells the story of the Maccabees. It’s not a family name, but the word for hammer – because a small courageous band of Jewish fighters hammered the mighty Syrian Greek army into submission, and liberated Israel from the one of the world’s greatest empires.
The Greek-Syrian Emperor Antiochus Epiphanes erected an idol inside the Temple to defile it, and then in an attempt to defile the people, commanded all of Israel to worship it. He made it illegal to follow God’s laws and anyone caught observing them would be put to death. In Matthew 24, Jesus pointed to this defilement as an example of the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel that will come at the very hands by the antichrist.
Five sons of the priest Mattathias waged a three-year campaign that somehow ended with victory, freedom, and the rededication of the Temple on the 25th of Kislev (December) in the year 164 B.C. Hanukkah, which means Dedication, celebrates that Temple cleansing. Since they had been unable to celebrate the week-long Festival of Sukkot in early autumn while the war was still raging, the Maccabees decided to celebrate Sukkot as part of the rededication of the Temple. The newly purified temple suddenly glowed again as they relit the oil lamps that God had commanded them to tend to and never let burn out.
They could only find one day’s supply of the holy oil, but in faith they lit the lamps anyway, and a profound miracle occurred. Day after day the tiny supply of oil continued to burn and burn – for all eight days of their feast as they ate and drank and rejoiced with praise and worship. They made it a law that their descendants would celebrate the victory and freedom.
Sadly, within a few decades, the Jews lost their independence and became subjects of Syria again, then to Greece, and finally to Rome. By 70 A.D., not only was their independence gone, but the Romans also utterly destroyed the Temple, their oil, and their lamps. As a “forever” celebration, Hanukkah was a bust. Yet, the rabbis of the Talmud identified only two holidays on which a Jew is required, if necessary, to sell his own clothing to observe them properly – Passover and Hanukkah. Why?
The Arrival of God
When history crashes and burns so quickly, we must ask if there’s more to it than that one historic event. Was there ever another miraculous moment in scripture when something on fire didn’t burn up? Yes, it was 1,400 years before the miraculous oil of the Maccabees. In Exodus 3, we find Moses tending flocks near the mountain of God, when he discovered an unusual bush. “Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up…God speaks from the bush, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob…I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt…So I have come down to rescue them…”
The Exodus story isn’t just about a burning bush, miracles, and deliverance, but a picture of the arrival of the Fire of God on the earth to set His people free. Likewise, the Maccabees oil was about the Fire of God arriving. In both cases we were meeting the Eternal Burning Bush, Endless Oil, Paschal Lamb, Yeshua Jesus. The same fire that established a covenant with Abraham would roast the Paschal Lamb, rain down as hail on Egypt, form into a pillar to give light and a wall to give protection, descend on Mount Sinai to give His Commands, fill the Tabernacle and Temple with His presence, and consume sacrifices to bring forgiveness.
160 years after the Maccabees, the Hanukkah Feast in Bethlehem had some powerful visitors, as noted in Luke 1: “In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin…Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call Him Jesus.”
Let’s lay out the calendar: We know John the Baptist was six months older than Jesus, and was born during Passover in the Spring, which means Jesus was born six months later, during the Fall Feasts. But the birth isn’t the beginning of the story; the beginning happened nine months earlier. The encounter between Gabriel, Mary, and the Holy Spirit (the conception of Jesus) would have occurred in December of 4 B.C., during the eight-day period of Hanukkah. Gabriel appeared to Mary, and Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit during the Festival of Lights – Hanukkah is always the arrival of God.
The Journey of the Magi
Just as God revealed His plans to Mary, so He also revealed His plans in His creation, especially in the stars? Psalm 19 tells us, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.” If we are open to hearing His voice like Mary was, we will discover that the stars are revealing knowledge to us about Jesus.
“Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing” (Isaiah 40:26).
God let man name the animals but, He named the stars on Day 4, and the Magi knew the language and meanings – It was their life. But sadly, the Greeks and Romans created a world of mythology and replaced the Hebrew names with Jupiter, Virgo, Venus, Leo, etc. In August of 3 BC, Mary was eight months pregnant and if she had looked up that August night, she would have seen what the Magi observed. The planet Gad (Jupiter) became visible above the eastern horizon “in the rising” as a morning star, and appeared in the head of the Comah, a baby in the lap of the constellation Bethulah the Virgin (Virgo). Nine days later, Gad came into conjunction with the star Regulus and Meni (Venus), rising as an evening star in the constellation of Ariel the Lion (Leo).
The bright star was so impressive to watch each night that Caesar Augustus assumed it was an ode to him and put an image of the star on a coin beside his own image. To the Magi, who were likely descendants of those trained by Daniel in Babylon hundreds of years before, the Lion was the sign of Judah; Meni was motherhood; Gad was the King Planet; and Regulus symbolized royalty. As these came together to form the brightest star anyone had ever seen, it was a clear and nightly repeated message that a grand king was about to be born in Israel. Since the Magi were likely among the Israelites who stayed and made a life in Babylon even after Cyrus set them free to return, they had hung on Daniel’s prophecies and now must travel to pay homage to their new king. While Jesus would be born one month later, the brightest star ever would lead the Magi for fifteen months until they arrived in Bethlehem.
“…the star they had seen in the East went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” Matthew 2:9
As the Magi arrived in Israel on December 25th of 2 B.C., it was the Feast of Hanukkah and the brightest star ever appeared to stop and sit directly over the village Bethlehem on December 25th, just before dawn. It was the third day of Hanukkah (when gifts are exchanged) and as the fifteen-month journey of the Magi came to a stunning end, they knelt before their new King and delivered their precious gifts right on time.
This year the 8-Day Feast of Hanukkah arrives December 10th-18th; the 8th day represents eternity. It’s not about when we observe, but that we stop and fix our eyes on eternity, knowing that it is what we were made for, and we have been given access to the throne room now, so we can be reminded that there is never ever anything to fear.