Jesus – it would seem – loved a good party.
John weaves the theme of festivals and feasts in throughout his account of Jesus’ life. The settings of Jesus’ teachings in chapter 5-10 are Jewish festivals, one after another: A Feast of the Jews (Sabbath), ch. 5; Passover, ch. 6; Tabernacles/Booths, ch. 7-10:21; Feast of Dedication, ch. 10:22-42.
In each of these festivals, Jesus is claiming to be greater, to be the fulfillment of the story, or the ritual, or the symbol that the festival centered around. Jesus uses these feasts and national holidays to reveal his true identity and mission. These texts are just packed with layer and layer of Jesus – Jesus revealing His nature, His character, His power, His mission!
A few weeks back I had the privilege to preach on the John 10 passage. You probably know the Feast of Dedications by what it’s commonly called today: Hanukkah. You won’t find references to Hanukkah in the Old Testament. It developed later, between the Old and New Testaments. It started about 160 years before Jesus. And although we don’t often think of it as such today, in Jesus day Hanukkah was very much a political holiday. It’s about leadership – true and false shepherds.
The long and short of it is this: In 167 BC, the Syrian Antiochus IV Epiphanes overran Jerusalem and declared war on God. Antioch IV ransacked the Temple and turned it into a cesspool of sin. He made laws banning the possession of the Jewish scriptures (it was a capital offense!). As you might expect, this put some pressure on the Jews of Jerusalem. Some capitulated; they gave in; they tried to find power under the new ruler. The office of High Priest continued on… but it was sold to the highest bidder under Antiochus IV’s rule. On the other hand, some sought to remain faithful. Judas Maccabaeus (‘Judas the Hammer’) – among others – led Jews in guerilla-style warfare, and eventually recaptured the city and the Temple in 164 BC (three years later). So the Feast of Dedication remembers the re-dedication and re-consecration of the Temple (and this is where the menorah and oil often associated with Hanukkah come into play).
One of the major themes remembered during this feast was the contrast between good shepherds and bad shepherds (bad shepherds were plentiful during the rule of Antiochus). In fact, every year, the Jews would read from Ezekiel 34 in the Hanukkah liturgy. It was a judgment and a caution. Hear God’s words to the “false shepherds” of Israel:
Ezek. 34:1 The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. 4 The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.
Not only does God speak judgment against the false shepherds of Israel, but hear this: God promises that He Himself will be their shepherd. Ezekiel 34, from v. 11
Ezek. 34:11 “For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness… 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD.
And so it’s in this context, when some of the Jews corner Jesus in the Temple at the Feast of Dedication, they ask: “Look, just tell us straight up – are you the Messiah?”
Jesus says, “I told you, but you don’t believe.” And it’s as if Jesus is pointing to the Ezekiel passage (which is fresh on everyone’s mind) and saying, “Look, that’s what I’m doing. I’m the good shepherd. I and the Father are one… that time that Ezekiel talks about – God’s Himself shepherding His people – that’s now, that’s me!”
How does the crowd react? They pick up stones to murder Jesus – to silence His “blasphemy.”
In His defense, Jesus goes on to say that He was consecrated and sent into the world (by the Father, v.36). Consecrate – to declare something holy, to set it apart. Remember, that is what Hanukkah celebrated, the re-consecration of the Temple. And just like that, Jesus commandeers the imagery and uses it to reveal His glory!
As people are in the Temple during a time of intense devotion to the Temple, Jesus says, “I’m the consecrated One sent from heaven.” Jesus is the holy place; He stands between man and God; He’s the one who get our devotion. Christians don’t generally celebrate Hanukkah, because Jesus is our consecrated place. Jesus is the presence of God among us!