Hanukkah reminds us that holiness (i.e. non-assimilation) is at the center of the Gospel.
Hanukkah (“dedication” in Hebrew) is the Jewish Festival of Lights. The festival commemorates the dedication of the temple after its desicration by the anti-Jewish Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanis IV. In 165 BC, the Jews in Israel were under Greek domination and refused to assimilate to Greek culture. This upset the Greeks and especially Antiochus Epiphanes IV. In his rage against the rebellious Jews, Antiochus sacrificed pigs on the altar of the temple and scattered the blood of the pigs in the holy of holies. This was an unprecedented abomination to the Jews and a horrifying desicration of the temple.
Naturally, the Jews weren’t happy about this. In fact, this event incited a major revolt that led to a revolutionary war against the Greeks that resulted in Jewish independence under the a family of priests (the Maccabees). This was the first time in approximately 400 years that the Jews lived under a self-governed Independent monarchy. In short, it was a big deal.
So where do the lights come in? John Parsons writes,
According to later tradition (as recorded in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b)), at the time of the rededication (on Kislev 25), there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Syrian-Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah to burn continually in the Temple, but there was only enough to last for one day. Miraculously, the sanctified oil burned for eight days — the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle.[fn]
Yes, Hanukkah celebrates the dedication of the temple, but it also celebrates non-assimilation. The Maccabean priests who revolted against the Greeks we’re refusing to assimilate to Greek culture and religion. They were called to be set apart among their neighbors. What made them Jews was adherence to the 613 commands of the Torah. These 613 commands touched every aspect of their lives. Covenant faithfulness meant eating differently, dressing differently, relating to people differently, managing money differently, even having a different calendar. Nothing in life is untouched by Israel’s call to holiness. They were entirely set a part.
Holiness, then, is what makes God’s people God’s people. They are different like God is different. Yahweh is utterly different than the Ancient Greek gods. He is the One True God. He is not subject to fate, he is utterly faithful and true, and unwaveringly good. None compare with him. He is distinct, set a part, holy.
It is because of God’s holiness that God’s people are called to be holy. They are to imitate and thereby honor his holiness. The holiness of Israel is the means of confessing their faith in the One True God. When God’s people refuse to assimilate, no matter how painful the consequences, the world knows that the God that they serve is set a part.
In this way the light of Hanukkah represents not only God’s miraculous provision for faithfulness during persecution, it also represents that God’s people are the light of the world (Matt 5:14). As the people of God are faithful to their calling to be set apart, they bring order, light, and life into a world of darkness, confusion, and chaos. This is possible precisely because Jesus is the light of the world (Jn 8:12), and God’s people—as the body of Christ—are an extension of that light.
The major work of the Holy Spirit (symbolized as fire) is to make believers one with Christ. Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit Christ is in us (Jn 14:20; 17:23; Rom 8:10; Gal 2:20) and we are in Christ (Col 1:27). We are one with Christ by the Holy Spirit. Because of this, Christ as the light of the world illuminates the world through the Church, the temple, his body.
This very reality is symbolized in how the menorah is lit. At the center of the eight candles is the servant candle (shamash). This is the candle that is used to light each candle each night. The servant candle, like Jesus as the servant to God and the church (Is 52:13–53:12; Mk 10:45; Phil 2:5–8, lights the light of believers.
As followers of Jesus we must must must remember that being a part of Christ means an unwavering call to holiness!!!! Holiness is the essence of being in Christ. Being in Christ means being set a part. It means non-assimilation.
The world outside of Christ is corrupt. Second Corinthians 4:4 says, “the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (NIV). This means that the life of the Christian must be radically different than that of the non-Christian.
This Hanukkah season, let us remember this call to holiness that is the essence of the Holy Trinity and his people.