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The Festival of Lights

by Tim O'Hearn

Hanukkah, which begins on December 7th this year, has been called the Festival of Lights. The common story, first recorded about two hundred years after the event it celebrates, says that when the Jewish forces under the Maccabees restored the Temple after it had been profaned by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, they could only find one day’s worth of oil certified pure for the Temple menorah. It would take seven days to produce more oil. It is said that the one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days, and this miracle is celebrated as Hanukkah.

There is little indication that this version was known in the early part of the First Century AD. In John 10:22, the holiday is called the “Feast of Dedication,” which fits more closely with the account in 2 Maccabees. Josephus says, “And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival.” (Antiquities of the Jews, XII, VII, 7) Josephus, though, in spite of being a well-educated Pharisee, was writing to a Roman audience and may have played down the miraculous aspect of the story. Clearly the holiday was called the festival of Lights as early as 60 AD. Whether or not the story of the oil is true, and it may well be, the idea of a festival of light has some validity. Even the Feast of Booths ended with just such a festival. There is even reason for Christians to celebrate light.

God is Light

A festival of light is especially appropriate because God is the giver of all light. His first recorded words in Genesis 1 were “Let there be light.” John tells us, (John 1:5), “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”

Light is necessary for all life as we know it. One of the popular experiments in high school biology has been to try to grow plants in total darkness. Plants and animals do not grow well in the absence of light. We will die without God.

While that is true in the physical world, it is also true in the spiritual realm. God is the giver of physical light, but also of his Word, the spiritual light. The comparison between righteousness/sin and light/darkness is an ancient one. We tend to think of light as good and darkness as bad. Thus we picture God’s communication to us as light. “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” (Ps 119:105) “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear.” (Ps 27:1) “Who is among you that feareth the LORD, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness, and hath no light? Let him trust in the name of the LORD, and stay upon his God.” (Isa 50:10)

Even salvation in Jesus is equated with living in God’s light. “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.” (1 Jn 1:7) Fellowship with other people can be valuable and enjoyable, but John here talks about an even greater fellowship. Walking in the light of God is to have fellowship with God. We can be friends with the creator of the universe! That is to know spiritual light.

Prophetic literature in the Bible talks about God giving this spiritual light to all who will follow him. This was to include more than just the Jewish nation. “And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.” (Isa 60:3) One time the Jews of Pisidian Antioch (now part of Turkey) rejected Paul’s teaching. As a result, he quoted Isaiah 49:6.

But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy, and spake against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming. Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles. For so hath the Lord commanded us, saying, I have set thee to be a light of the Gentiles, that thou shouldest be for salvation unto the ends of the earth. (Acts 13:45-47)

Isaiah further prefigured God lighting his church, both Jews and Gentiles.

Violence shall no more be heard in thy land, wasting nor destruction within thy borders; but thou shalt call thy walls Salvation, and thy gates Praise. The sun shall be no more thy light by day; neither for brightness shall the moon give light unto thee: but the LORD shall be unto thee an everlasting light, and thy God thy glory. Thy sun shall no more go down; neither shall thy moon withdraw itself: for the LORD shall be thine everlasting light, and the days of thy mourning shall be ended. (Isa 60:18-20)

There are many who believe that the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21 and 22 is the church on earth, and not a picture of heaven. The passage just quoted from Isaiah bears some support for this idea, when compared to the language of those chapters in the Revelation.

And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof. And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it. And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there. And they shall bring the glory and honour of the nations into it. And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Rev 21:23-27)

“And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever.” (Rev 22:5) Since the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven and is spoken of in the same terms as Isaiah’s picture of the Gentiles joining in God’s salvation, it is not unreasonable to see this as a picture of Christ’s church on earth.

Jesus is Light

When John the Baptizer was born, his father Zacharias prophesied about his son and the one who would follow him. In that prophecy, he quoted Isaiah 9:2. “To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:79) Matthew begins his account of the ministry of Jesus with the same quotation (Matt 4:16)

Perhaps the most famous commentary on the words of Jesus by one of the gospel writers begins “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) Three verses later John adds: “And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” This refers back to his description of Jesus in the first chapter. “In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” (Jn 1:4-5)

Jesus even described himself as light. The day after the Feast of Booths was characterized by the lighting of an enormous menorah, which was said to give light to the whole of Jerusalem. On the day after this, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” (Jn 8:12)

It was through the Son that God fully revealed himself to the world. Through Jesus God was revealing his own light to man.

We are light

From early time God has wanted his people to show his light to a lost world. Abraham spread the gospel of the one God. The nation of Israel was set aside under Moses to show the world that God still cared for his people. Isaiah described how that nation could outshine the noonday sun. “And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday.” (Isa 58:10) Paul said it a little differently, without using the example of light. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” (Eph 2:10)

Jesus said it a different way; one which is more appropriate to Hanukkah. “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” (Matt 5:14-16; also Lk 8:16; 11:33) One of the requirements of the holiday of Hanukkah is the lighting of the menorah, to commemorate the lighting of the Temple lamp when it was rededicated after exactly three years of defilement. Part of the requirement for the menorah is that it be placed where it can be seen from the street. A menorah that is lit and then hidden in the interior of the house is worse than worthless; it is an affront to God. It is saying, “I believe in you, but I am ashamed to let anyone else know that.” If we have the word of God and refuse to show it to men, we are saying the same thing. We are refusing to give people the opportunity to glorify God.

For ye were formerly darkness, but now are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light. (Eph 5:8)