Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Hanukkah at the Time of Jesus
We have very little information as to how Jesus related to the festival. We are aware He was in the Temple at the time of the Feast:“Now it was the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple, in Solomon’s porch” (John 10:22–23).
It seems very probable that He would have been meditating on the implications of the festival. So the context of the abrasive John 10 debate between Himself and some of the nation’s leaders in Solomon’s Porch was the festival which memorialised the cleansing of the Temple after a victorious campaign led by Judas Maccabaeus. He would have known that patriotic Jews would have been acutely aware of the parallels between the predicament that the Maccabees faced some two hundred years earlier and the difficulties that then faced the nation. At the time of the Syrian occupation they overcame all obstacles—but what of their present predicament?
When Christ walked in Solomon’s porch, Rome had power over Israel. The Emperor, Tiberius, also held the title ‘Pontifex Maximus’ which granted him authority over all Temples and religious activities in the empire. His personal representative, the Procurator, enforced this authority. For example, in Israel, the High Priest’s official garments, made for beauty and glory and reflecting the High Priest’s ministry of intercession, were held by Pontius Pilate and only released for special occasions. Rome also kept a garrison of soldiers in the Antonia Fortress, which was in the shadow of the Temple. Always manned and ready for trouble, the castle was re-enforced with additional legionaries at feast times, especially during Hanukkah, which had clear nationalistic overtones. During this season zealots fanned the nationalistic fervour by emphasizing the genesis of the festival, that is, the rejection of another emperor, a Syrian emperor, who also claimed jurisdiction over the Temple. But Rome, perhaps mindful of the folly of Antiochus; certainly more politically aware than the Syrian; was careful not to repeat his mistake – their policy was to allow the Jews as much latitude as they could without compromising their own authority.
Jesus had a great affection for the Temple, at one time calling it “My Father’s House”. From Solomon’s Porch He could see the great altar of sacrifice which was visible through the gate of Nicanor. He also understood the enormity of the profanity of Antiochus, who desecrated the Temple by slaughtering a pig on the altar in the court of priests, as well as erecting a statue of Zeus in the most Holy Place (the home of the Ark of the Covenant, the ‘throne of God’). Jesus was also aware that the current High Priest, Caiaphas, was leading the Jewish ruling body, the Sanhedrin, to commit an equally heinous profanity by rejecting His Messianic claim and demanding His crucifixion.
The Pharisees, who considered themselves the descendants of the freedom fighters who liberated Israel, especially looked forward to the day when the Jewish nation would again know freedom and prosperity under the leadership of the Messiah. But how devious is the human heart – it is incurably sick – or as Jeremiah expressed it: “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9). Their hoped-for Messiah was among them, but His Messianic leadership was not to their taste. They would not be easily persuaded. John’s remark that it was winter describes not only the season but also the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees.
So the two skirmishes reported in John 10 begin in an atmosphere of hostility. Because of the ‘shepherd’ references in the second confrontation, John connects the dispute with a previously delivered discourse, that of the ‘Good Shepherd’. In that address Jesus started by using a double ‘amen’, that is, ‘truly, truly’ or ‘verily, verily’ (in verses 1 and 7). This emphasised the importance of the information that He was imparting. He spelt it out, albeit in familiar imagery, how the events of the near future would evolve. He declared the ‘Good Shepherd’ would die for the sheep, not as the result of an assassination attempt but rather because He chose to lay down His life in accordance with the divine plan of the Father. As He often did He divided the members of the nation into two identifiable groups – those who were His followers, ‘His sheep’, and those who were not. He promised ‘His sheep’ eternal safety, security and life abundant.
With the ‘Good Shepherd’ teaching fresh in their minds the Pharisees again engaged the Lord Jesus in debate, this time during the Hanukkah season. These, who opposed Him, used the motif of the festival to raise the issue of His mission. They quickly got to the point and asked Him directly, “How long do You keep us in doubt? If You are the Christ (Messiah), tell us plainly” (John 10:24). It is possible that there were those listening who were zealots looking for a military leader who would follow the Maccabean heritage and lead Israel against Rome. Jesus, who later said to Pilate He had no ambitions in that direction, had to craft his answer with care. An unwise response could result in a political charge that would bring unnecessary complications. His path was clearly mapped out for Him. He would die in the right way (by being lifted up), at the right time (the time of the evening sacrifice) on the right day (14th Nisan—Passover), at the right Passover festival (in the 483rd year after the edict was issued to rebuild Jerusalem). His reply to the Pharisees was: “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father’s name, they bear witness of Me” (John 10:25). In other words He said, ‘I am providing evidence enough that I am your Messiah if you only had eyes to see, but you are blind’ (see John 9:39-41).
He then returned to the ‘Good Shepherd’ imagery which would have brought to the minds of His listeners the ‘shepherd’ texts of the Old Testament, especially Psalm 23 but also Jeremiah 23 and Ezekiel 34. The Davidic Psalm which begins “The Lord (YHWH) is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1), is the passage that particularly speaks of God (YHWH) as the shepherd who provides sustenance and safety. Jesus, in taking this reference to Himself, (“I am the good shepherd” (John vv.11,14)), asserted His deity as well as His Messiahship. That was followed by even stronger assertions that identified Him with the Father. For example:
“And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. I and My Father are one” (John 10:28–30).
These latest declarations –
that it is Jesus who gives eternal life –
that His followers will never perish –
that He has the same keeping power as God the Father –
that He and the Father are one in purpose, one in power and one in essence –
produced the predictable result - “Then the Jews took up stones again to stone Him”. Jesus challenged this latest outburst of anger,
“Many good works I have shown you from My Father. For which of those works do you stone Me?”
The Jews responded,
“For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy, and because You, being a Man, make Yourself God” (John 10.31-33).
This, of course, was part of the blasphemy of Antiochus – he had called himself ‘Epiphany’ (god manifest). In response to this latest accusation, the Messiah asked:
“Do you say of Him whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?” (John 10:36)
In this very pointed question Jesus used two aspects of the feast to point to two remarkable truths about Himself.
More Next Time:
Posted by Mountjoy at 8:29 AM