Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Mark's thoughts: Hanukkah - Festival of the Incarnation

You are probably aware that the Jewish festival of Hanukkah takes place during the same time of year as Christmas.  Most likely you have heard it called the “feast of lights” and associate it with the image of the Hanukkah Menorah with its four candles on each side and a raised candle in middle.  Yet what is often overlooked is that when viewed from the perspective of the temple and the history of God’s people, Hanukkah is a festival that teaches us about how all of God’s saving work finds its focus in the incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. This year [2017] Hanukkah falls during Dec.12 to Dec. 20.  The fact that this takes place during Advent provides an ideal opportunity to reflect upon this festival from the history of God’s people and what it teaches us as we prepare to celebrate Christmas.

The name Hanukkah is derived from a Hebrew word that means “to dedicate.”  Hanukkah celebrates the rededication the temple in Jerusalem in 164 B.C.  The first temple built by King Solomon had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.  God had promised through Jeremiah that Babylon’s rule over Judah would come to an end (Jeremiah 25:11-12).  Ezra tells us that in fulfillment of this Cyrus the Persian leader who had conquered the Babylonians issued a decree that the exiles could return and rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:1-3).  The Edict of Cyrus in 538 B.C. allowed the Jews to dedicate the rebuilt temple in 516/515 B.C. (Ezra 6:13-18).

It is important to recognize that the rebuilding of the temple was pleasing to God.  He was the One who caused it.  He had prophesied it through Jeremiah and caused King Cyrus to issue the decree about its rebuilding (Ezra 1:1).  He had worked through the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to see that it was completed (Ezra 5:1-2; 6:13-15).  The temple held continuing importance for two reasons. First, it was the place where God had promised that He dwelt in the midst of His people (Exodus 25:8; Deuteronomy 12:1-14). Second, it was the place where the sacrifices by which God delivered forgiveness to Israel took place (Leviticus 7:27-31).  It was the located means of God’s presence and the place where the Old Testament means of grace took place.  God’s actions in the sixth century B.C. demonstrated that although He had abandoned the first temple because of the people’s sin (Jeremiah 26:1-6; Ezekiel 8-10), He still desired a temple to play these roles.

The Jews living in Palestine traded one set of rulers for another until in the third century B.C. they found themselves ruled by Seleucids who were based in Syria.  In 167 B.C. for reasons that are still disputed, the Seleucid king Antiochus (IV) Epiphanes began a religious persecution against the Jews.  The sacrifices in the temple were suspended.  The cult of Zeus was set up in temple and swine’s flesh was offered there.

In 166/165 B.C. a rural member of a priestly family, named Mattathias, began an uprising (often called the Maccabean uprising after one of Mattathias’ sons, Judas Maccabeus).  They gained control of Jerusalem and in 164 B.C., three years to the day after it had been desecrated by Antiochus IV, the temple was rededicated. Sacrifices were offered and the lamp stand was again lit in the temple.  The event was celebrated with a festival that lasted eight days and was called the Festival of Lights. This festival was added to the Jewish religious calendar and was often called the Feast of Dedication.  Later Jewish tradition found in the Talmud (ca. 500 AD) added a legend about how there was only enough oil to light the temple for one day, and yet the oil lasted for all eight days of the celebration. However none of the accounts that date from the second century B.C. to the first century A.D.(I and II Maccabees, and Josephus) mention anything about this.

John 10:22 tells us that Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Dedication – to celebrate Hanukkah.  God had acted to rebuild the temple in order put in place the setting for the fulfillment of a promise. In Malachi 3:1 God had promised, “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.”  During Advent we are reminded that the messenger was John the Baptist.  The Lord did come to the rebuilt temple in a series of visits that included celebrating the Feast of Dedication.  And then dramatically, He entered into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and cleansed the temple (Matthew 21:1-17).

Hanukkah - the Feast of Dedication – reminds us about the important role that the temple played in God’s plan of salvation.  Jesus Christ emphasized this fact by celebrating the festival during his earthly ministry.  The temple was important because it pointed forward to the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the vicarious sacrifice that He would carry out. 

The Gospel of John tells us that everything that was true of the tabernacle and the temple is now true of Jesus Christ.   John 1:14 says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”  The verb that John uses for “dwell” is based on the same root as the word that is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) to translate “tabernacle.” Likewise, John 1:14’s reference to “glory” recalls how God’s glory filled the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-38) and then its successor the temple (1 Kings 8:10-11). The identification of the incarnation of Jesus Christ with temple becomes explicit in the next chapter when Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (2:19).  The Jews are puzzled and John informs the reader, “But he was speaking of the temple of his body” (2:21).

The temple was the place where sacrifices were offered to God as He provided forgiveness to His people (Leviticus 7:27-31). Those sacrifices pointed forward and found fulfillment in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross which is the source of all forgiveness.  As Peter tells us, “knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19)

As Hanukkah – the Feast of Dedication – falls during Advent it teaches us about the significance of Christmas that we are preparing to celebrate.  In our celebration of the incarnation, we are celebrating the culmination of God’s saving work. What had been true of a building in Jerusalem is now true of the One who was born in Bethlehem.  God has come to dwell with us in the flesh of Jesus Christ.  Just as the temple was the place of sacrifice, the Son of God came in the flesh in order to carry out the single great sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins. Hanukkah’s celebration of the rededication of the temple in the second century B.C. teaches us about the meaning of the baby in the manger.

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