Every fall, I choose one Christmas decoration to add to my stash. This year, I bought a brass menorah, and I’m not even Jewish.
My menorah sits proudly in the middle of my dining room table, a reminder of the Old Testament heritage I share as a Christ-follower. I’ve long wanted to understand more about Jewish traditions, but frankly, some of them seem perplexing, and I didn’t want to pull too hard on loose threads, hoping they’d lead to Christ. But, I decided this year to learn more.
The timing couldn’t be more ideal. The two holidays run parallel this season. Hanukkah begins the evening of December 24 and ends the evening of January 1. This Christmas, for the first time, I will also celebrate Hanukkah.
Jesus celebrated Hanukkah.
Another reason compels me to study Old Testament holidays. Jesus, as a Jewish boy, would have faithfully celebrated every festival. I want to know the things he held precious.
Jesus chose the Festival of Dedication—another name for Hanukkah—to declare something that sounded blasphemous to Jewish ears. It’s one of my favorite passages: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:27-30, NIV).
The Miracle of Hanukkah.
During the 400 “silent” years between the Old and New Testaments, Jerusalem had been captured, the temple defiled, and the religion outlawed. People were massacred and pigs (pigs!) sacrificed inside the sacred temple. Jewish warriors called Maccabbees revolted. Even though they were vastly outnumbered, after years of fighting, they won and regained control of Jerusalem.
Hanukkah means dedication, and it’s referred to as the Festival of Lights or the Festival of Dedication. That’s the first thing the people wanted to do—to dedicate their beloved temple once more. But, they only had enough sanctified oil to light the temple candelabrum, called the menorah, for one day. Supernaturally, that one day’s worth of oil lasted for eight days, enough time for them to make more oil and sanctify it. This is the Miracle of Hanukkah and points to the significance of the number eight.
Jews celebrate Hanukkah for eight days. The special Hanukkah menorah has nine candles, two more than the traditional candelabra. Eight of these candles represent each day the oil remained, with a ninth candle, usually taller and in the middle, called the shamash or servant candle. The servant stoops to light all the other candles.
Hanukkah teaches that the Light is never to be extinguished.
God intended for the temple menorah to keep burning always, but it had been snuffed out for many years. In Judaism, candlelight is a reminder of God’s divine presence. Candles lit during Jewish holidays and on the Sabbath set those days apart as holy. Light and darkness are frequent metaphors in the Bible.
I know what it’s like to live in a place devoid of light. I moved to Romania as an undercover missionary a matter of months after Communism was toppled in 1990. At night, a dark shroud covered the capital city. No streetlights, no cars on the roads, and no lamps in the buildings. Students in the dorms took a friend and their one light bulb when they showered, then carefully wrapped the bulb, the most precious thing they owned, and hid it in their room. When my team and I would enter the completely darkened dorms, we had to count the number of flights we walked up and feel the raised numbers above the doors, as though they were in Braille, to find the right room.
The Eastern European people lived enveloped not only in physical darkness, but after years of being taught that God doesn’t exist, also spiritual blindness. We took the light of good news to a place where most people didn’t have it.
Jesus came as the eternal flame that will never go out. At another holy day also involving the lighting of candelabra, the Festival of Tabernacles, Jesus declared, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12, NIV). The darker the world grows, the more brightly his light will shine.
Hanukkah teaches that God will provide what we need.
Miraculously, the meager supply of oil during the temple rededication was sufficient. It lasted as long as it needed to. Hanukkah reminds us that God sees what we need and that He will provide.
Corrie ten Boom, writing of her childhood before the war, tells of her father buying train tickets days in advance. She’d beg him to let her hold onto her ticket until the time came to board the train. He told her he’d give it to her when she needed it but not before.
God’s provision comes like that. It arrives when we need it, but not in advance. It is always enough. You may not have grace now for things that will happen in your future, but you will have it for today. It comes from the hand of your Father, and it’s ample.
According to Philippians 4:19 (NIV), “And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.” His riches in Jesus are inexhaustible, just like the oil. His supply will never run dry, and it will always be exactly what you need.
It’s the same God.
Unlike other religions, Christianity and Judaism are closely intertwined. We worship the exact same God, the God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The great “I Am that I Am,” who spoke the world into being, first uttered his holy name to Moses from the midst of a bush on fire that didn’t burn up (Exod. 3).
That same God promised that a child would be born to sit on the throne of David and set His people free. The Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace would come (Isa. 9).
All believers in Jehovah God share the heritage of the Old Testament. The only difference, which is a significant one, is that Christians believe a different ending to the story. We believe the coming of Messiah has already been fulfilled.
Hanukkah points to Christ.
About 165 years after the temple rededication known as Hanukkah, Jesus penetrated world history in human flesh.
He was born into a dark world. People had lost hope. Israel suffered under the oppressive thumb of Rome. Factions inside the country threatened to split it apart. Poverty had escalated. The world then was a lot like the world today.
Yet, the people still hoped, many with steadfast faith, that God would send the Messiah. The prophet Isaiah foretold: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Isa. 9:2, NIV).
One quiet night, light flooded a hillside in Bethlehem where shepherds stood vigil over their flock. An angel chorus descended to sing the most glorious words ever spoken.
Rulers from the East were drawn to the brilliance of the star that filled the sky and guided them to the baby. Once they saw that infant, their knees buckled and they fell to the ground and worshiped.
Simeon recognized the baby as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:32, NIV).
Jesus is the capital “L” Light.
No gospel writer is more eloquent than the apostle John. Let these words that John penned wash over your soul.
In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:4-14, NIV)
We are the lowercase lights.
Like the shamash candle, Jesus bent low to serve, not demanding to be served, but instead, providing light for all other candles. He dwelt among us and illuminated the way for not only the Jewish nation but the Gentile world as well. Isaiah prophesied that he would bring salvation to the ends of the earth (Isa. 49:6). Today, we’re still part of his magnificent plan for reaching into every darkened corner of the world.
Jesus passed the baton to us when he said, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:14-16, NIV). Menorahs are likewise to be placed in a window, so everyone will see our hope in the capital “L” Light.
Both holidays together.
At Christmastime, we celebrate the coming of the Light. Jesus entered our world as a baby, and he longs to take his place in our hearts as Lord.
As I light my Hanukkah candles each of the eight nights this holiday season, I will reflect on Jesus. He alone is the true light that can pierce the darkness. He is the light that will never be snuffed out. He is all we need.
Rather than take away from Christmas, celebrating Hanukkah deepens the significance of Christmas for me. Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas!