Anticipating a Deliverer: Hanukkah

John 10:22-25

If you’ve looked on your calendar recently, you’ve noticed that today is a special day – it is the beginning of Hanukkah – that Jewish holiday that we assume is the counterpart for Christmas where Santa comes down all the Jewish chimneys and delivers presents.  But in reality, it has its roots in events that took place a couple hundred years before the coming of the Christ.  It was during that mysterious 400 years between the last OT prophet Malachi and the proclamation of John the Baptist that he was preparing the path for the Messiah.  You find the story in the intertestamental books of 1 & 2 Maccabees.  And you find it mentioned in the NT in John 10 – Hanukkah was also called the Feast of Dedication  

Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade.  The Jews gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”  Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.  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 can 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 10:22-30)

A lot of things happened in the world leading up to that conversation.  Three and a half centuries earlier Alexander the Great conquered the world - from Rome to Egypt, from Greece to Persia – Judea included.  But when Alexander died in 323 B.C., a struggle for power ensued and began a soap opera of lies, deceit, bribery, murder, betrayal, assassinations, kings and generals – (all the fulfillment of prophecy in Daniel 11).

In the middle of it all, Judea was a pawn, a crossroads, and a battlefield for this political and military struggle between the Seleucids in the north and the Ptolemys in the south.  This struggle continued for over 150 years.

A major player entered the scene in 175 B.C. – Antiochus IV, king of Syria, ruler of the Seleucid dynasty – he called himself “Epiphanes” (God manifest) – his enemies made a play on the name and called him “Epimanes” (the mad man) because of his cruelty and ruthlessness.  He was an arrogant, despotic ruler (much like the later Roman emperor Nero).  He pictured himself as the Greek Olympian god Zeus, come down as a man.  He attempted to bring Greek culture to all of his empire.

Now is where we bring the Jewish people back into the picture. 

There were conservatives and liberals – those wanting to preserve Jewish culture and religion vs. those willing to flow with society and take on the latest cultural fads.

Two priests in Jerusalem vied for power – Onias and Jason (ironically, they were brothers).  Jason was the one who said anything goes, and won the support of Antiochus and Onias had to flee for his life.

Jason sent a messenger, Menelaus to Antiochus to carry money and complete some records.  But in the process, Menelaus does an end run on Jason and outbids Jason for the priesthood – and he arrives back in Jerusalem with a royal army and sends Jason fleeing to the hills. 

Antiochus, meanwhile, has his own problems.  Rome is growing stronger and is starting to muscle in on Egypt.  Antiochus takes his army and goes to Egypt to consolidate his rule.  Too late – Rome has already become too powerful and sends him packing like a whipped dog.  On his way back to Syria, he remembers Judea.

News had reached Jerusalem that Antiochus had been killed in battle (he hadn’t) and Jason, who had been ousted as priest, gathers a Jewish force and attacks Jerusalem, forcing Menelaus to seek refuge in the Temple citadel. Only too late does Jason find out that Antiochus isn’t dead, and Antiochus who is still sore about his beating in Egypt, decides he can still flex his muscles here.  He comes into Jerusalem with a sweeping vengeance.

Antiochus imposed laws against the Sabbath, forbade circumcision, destroyed all of the scrolls and books of scripture he could find.  And then to add his crowning act of contempt he set up an altar to Zeus in the Temple and had a pig sacrificed.  Daniel, in his prophecy, titled it “the abomination of desolation.”  Jews were forced to participate in the heathen festivals and were put to death if found in possession of the book of the Law.

Now to be honest, a certain segment of the Jews didn’t oppose what Antiochus was doing to their religion, but there began a ground swell of opposition and rebellion among the common folk that would eventually blow Antiochus off the political map.

The Hasmonean family was one such family. Mattathian and his five sons fled from Jerusalem to Modein.  When the king’s officers came to Modein to enforce the proper sacrifices, Mattathias took a sword and slew all of the officials along with the first Jew who stepped forward to sacrifice, and cried out, “Let every one who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!” (1 Macc. 2:15-27). He and hundreds of followers fled to the mountains and the revolt was on.  They fought with guerilla warfare – ambushes and assassinations and midnight raids.

Mattathias was old and dying, and he passed on the mantel of revolution to his sons.  To Simeon he gave the position of leader and father.  His son, Judas, he made military commander.  Judas had a nickname, “Maccabee” – “the Hammer.”  It was that name that came to be associated with both the family and the rebellion, and the title for the two extra-biblical books, 1 & 2 Maccabees.

Antiochus, in his arrogance, didn’t take the rebellion too seriously until the Maccabees routed the army of governor Apollonius of Samaria and killed him, and then turned and defeated General Seron at Beth-horon. Antiochus sent his most power general, Lysias, with half of his forces and ordered him to liquidate the Judean menace. 40,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry camped at Emmaus.

5,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry under General Gorgias went out at night to make a quick and sure end to the rebels.  But Judas Maccabee learned of it and went around the flank of Gorgias and attacked the main army at Emmaus with only 3,000 men and routed them, pursuing them to the plains of Idumea, Ashdod and Jamnia.  Then the Maccabees turned and slaughtered General Gorgias as well.  The book of 1 Maccabees says, “Israel had a great deliverance that day” (4:1-15).

The following year, Lysias sent out an even larger army of 60,000 select infantry and 5,000 cavalry.  Once again Judas’ force of only 10,000 defeated them against tremendous odds.  Lysias himself explained the defeat, observing that the Jews were ready “either to live or die nobly” (4:35).

It’s difficult to win a war against those willing to die for their cause.

This took place in 165 B.C.  The first phase of liberation complete, Judas set about the second phase:

He selected blameless priests and set them about cleansing the Temple that had been so defiled.

On the 25th day of the ninth month (Chislev), (three years to the day after the temple to Zeus had been set up), the cleansing was complete and a feast of “Dedication” was established.  Proper sacrifices were offered once again amidst prayers of thanksgiving and rejoicing. 

For eight days the feast was observed and they named it Dedication – the meaning of the Hebrew word “Hanukkah.”  They determined that every year from then on they would celebrate the eight day festival of dedication, also known as the Feast of Lights, because of the prominence of the lighting of the eight menorah candles.

It is in this context, with the memories of revolution and deliverance, that we turn to John 10, and feel what is going through the minds and hearts of the Jews during this feast, and as they surround Jesus and ask him, “How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

They weren’t asking about spiritual deliverance, but deliverance from the heavy clutches of Rome. They wanted a deliverer who would drive out the Roman armies as Judas “the Hammer” Maccabee had done some 170 years earlier.

Unless we understand this groundswell of expectation and anticipation of a Messiah who will deliver them we can’t really understand the Jewish reaction to Jesus. He was everything they needed, but nothing they expected.

They couldn’t see that they couldn’t see.  They asked the right question of the right person, but with no clue who it was who was standing before them.  He was everything they needed, but nothing that they wanted in a messiah.

But Jesus was the Messiah, the Deliverer that God had sent to bring his people out of bondage to sin. You see, all of the Jewish feasts and festivals ultimately point to Jesus and find their fulfillment in him:

  • He was the fulfillment of all the hopes and expectations of the Feast of Passover (more perfectly the deliverer than Moses, more perfectly the sacrifice than the Passover lamb).

     

  • He was the fulfillment of the Feast of Tabernacles (more perfectly the protection in the wilderness than any earthly tent, more perfectly the goal of their journey than the land of Canaan).

     

  • He was the fulfillment of the Feast of Weeks (more perfectly the first-fruits than any earthly harvest).

     

  • Jesus was the fulfillment of the Feast of Dedication (more perfectly the Savior of Israel than Judas Maccabee could ever be).

Each year as the Jews celebrated the rededication of the Temple, they also rededicated themselves to God, and how appropriate it would be, on this day – Hanukkah – “Dedication” – to rededicate ourselves to serving God.

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