It was wintertime in Jerusalem, and like other observant Jews, Jesus was celebrating Hanukkah, a festival that celebrates the dedication of the Temple after a successful revolt (John 10:22–24). The story underlying this holiday begins in the second century, before the birth of Jesus, when Hellenistic culture was spreading across the land. The people of Israel began replacing their Jewish distinctives with Greek practices. The new ruler Antiochus Epiphanes did not allow them to follow God’s requirements, such as observing the Sabbath and other religious festivals. The Jews were told to forsake their dietary requirements and were forced to worship a pagan god brought into the Temple.
Thus, the Jewish people and biblical faith almost came to an end. As the First Book of Maccabees (1:49–50) tells us, “To the end they might forget the Torah, and change all the ordinances. And whosoever would not do according to the commandment of the king [Antiochus], he said, he should die.”
This became the catalyst for resistance and the long, bloody war that followed, and finally, a small band of heroic zealots from the Maccabee family succeeded against the formidable army of Antiochus. These guerrilla-like heroes set out to make the Jewish nation a mighty force, and after reclaiming Israel against all odds, they celebrated their victory by rededicating the Temple. This event would later be commemorated as the Feast of Dedication, which Jesus celebrated while in the Temple. This has me considering whether Jesus condoned the use of militant armed resistance to rescue the faith of Israel from the clutches of desecrating Gentiles (1 Maccabees 2:44–48).
This week, I read Sigve Tonstad’s study on the Maccabean Revolt, and it raised some pertinent questions about using violence in the service of revival and reformation “What does victory in a war fought by such means in order to preserve the faith do to the self-understanding of the faith? What does victory by militant means do to the victor?” (“To Fight or Not to Fight: The Sabbath and the Maccabean Revolt,” 2016, Andrews University Seminary Studies, Vol. 54: 139–140). The miracle of Hanukkah is the preservation of God’s people, which paved the way for the days of Jesus. Without this faithful handful of men and women, there would not be a Christmas to celebrate. So, how can I be grateful for the survival of Judaism while condemning the violent atrocities that assured it? Is there a way to celebrate God and biblical faith while acknowledging the many ways in which human hands have impacted history?
When Jesus showed up to teach in Temple courts during Hanukkah, the season for remembering this militant deliverance, the religious leaders were determined to know His identity: “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” (John 10:24). Jesus replied, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). The religious leaders, however, were unwilling to accept this claim. Perhaps the Maccabean militancy had influenced their view of messiahship, making them skeptical of anyone claiming to be God, but Jesus was the deliverer they were seeking. He chose to use this festival of light to reveal God. He came to do what other heroes had failed to do: reveal to the world what God is really like.
At this time of great darkness, the people of God were almost assimilated into the Greco-Roman culture. We too are in danger of becoming assimilated into the culture around us. Some of today’s Christians would probably have no problem using militant means to preserve faith while ironically agreeing with Antiochus about annulling the Biblical requirements given at Sinai, such as keeping the Sabbath and not eating pork. Modern American Christians often complain about the Christmas wars, lamenting that they can’t set up nativity scenes in public areas. They are upset that Christian prayer is not officially offered in schools. They demand that religious monuments be displayed in public squares and champion the right to own weapons. How can we celebrate God well when our soiled hands are fighting such battles?
We have been given a better example of resistance. Jesus revealed what God is really like, and we should desire to imitate His character. The birth of Jesus as Savior of the world offers an alternative deliverance—one not by revolt but divine intervention. The nativity does not espouse a militant ideology, and we must not forget that Christianity began as a nonviolent revolution and counterculture movement of other-centered love. The birth of Jesus is the event that changed history; it is a story for everyone.
How will the kingdom of God come? In what form will triumph emerge? Sigve Tonstad explains that divine action takes precedence over human action: “Deliverance by divine intervention, not militant struggle is the bottom line…” (“To Fight or Not to Fight: The Sabbath and the Maccabean Revolt,” 2016, Andrews University Seminary Studies, Vol. 54 2016, p. 143). When we’re pressured to go along with the world, we must exercise faithfulness. However, we should not focus on having more faith but the faithfulness of Christ. Jesus is the one who imitates the Father, which is the key to becoming victorious over the world (1 John 5:4). Faithfulness is about Jesus’ imitation of God and His kind of obedience. Jesus does not eliminate our need to follow the commandments, but He reveals the method: triumph without violence. This is relevant advice for the age of darkness, which will only grow more powerful (Daniel 7:25). In today’s growing darkness, we need a proper understanding of God and the supernatural light that He provides. As Paul said, “Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life” (Philippians 2:14–15).
So, why did Jesus celebrate the dedication of the Temple? In light of His ministry and life, I cannot help but think that Jesus is the only one who can cleanse the Sanctuary of history on our behalf to reveal the truth about God and to sanctify our faith in Him (Daniel 8:14). He is the light of the world, and He alone brings the miracle of light into the darkness. The Maccabees could not cleanse this Sanctuary, for their victory was short lived and soon succumbed to Roman rule (Daniel 8:17). There are many heroes like the Maccabees but only one true conquering hero of our lives. Jesus commemorates cosmic renewal, restoration, and rededication but not violence. As the Sanctuary represents God’s character, its dedication must enact the vindication of His love. Jesus is the one who vindicates God’s name and transforms faulty people into temples of holiness. So, I ask myself whether I am becoming rededicated to the love of God or more desecrated. Only a genuine representation of God can shine light into the hearts of those who do not know Him.
Have a blessed Hanukkah and a merry Christmas!
Craig Ashton Jr.