Spirit of Grace Ministries
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Spirit of Grace Ministries
-- Feeding Jesus' sheep
-- Equipping His servants
-- Proclaiming His Gospel

Lamps & Lampstands

biblical oil lamp

by Dennis Pollock

When I was a boy my parents took me to the “Mark Twain Cave” in Hannibal, Missouri. In those days there were guides who gave tours through parts of the mammoth cave. As we made our way deep into the bowels of the cave, the guide did something I will never forget. He turned off all the electric lights in the cave, in order to demonstrate what pure darkness really is. I suppose I have never been in such a dark place as I was for those few seconds, before or since. It was perfect darkness, so black and dark that had I placed my hand inches away from my eyes, I could not have seen even the faintest trace of my fingers. I wasn’t afraid; I knew the lights would be back on soon, but I was intrigued by the concept of total darkness.

The Bible has much to say about light and lamps. Jesus said of Himself, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12). The apostle Paul writes, “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Light is that which illuminates. It causes us to see things that have otherwise been hidden. Jesus came into the world to reveal the true God to us, and the means (Himself) by which we can have an eternal relationship with that God. Every Christian recognizes this, and none would dispute it.

But strangely, in another place Jesus tells us that we, His followers, are the light, saying: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden…” (Matthew 5:14). So, who is the light? Is it Jesus or is it us, His followers? Well, of course it is truly Jesus, but as He lives in us, we become carriers of that light, which makes us, in an indirect fashion, the light. To be more precise we are really more lamps than we are lights. We carry the light, but we are His lamps.

Ancient Oil Lamps

When you read of lamps in the Bible, it can be a little misleading for modern Americans who are unfamiliar with ancient Jewish customs and history. We may think of modern lamps which are large, electrical devices that have bulbs and lampshades. The Jews of the Bible knew nothing of such things. The lamps you read about in the Bible, as when the 10 bridesmaids carried their lamps to the wedding, some with extra oil and some without it, were the standard lamps of those days: tiny olive oil lamps normally made of clay. They held small amounts of olive oil, and had a wick made of a sliver of cloth. They produced a small amount of light, about what you might get from a skinny, little candle. If you had one such lamp burning in your house, it would give just enough light so that you might see the outline of your friend sitting across the room from you, but very dimly. One of these lamps was certainly not enough to read by.

There were some lamps created to use two or four wicks at a time, but these were not common. The average Jew was not wealthy, and could not afford to waste the olive oil that would be drained by multiple wicks. When there were late night parties and groups, the guests would bring their own lamps, and the room would be well lit by multiple lamps. This was the situation described in the book of Acts when Paul met with a large group of Christians in the evening at Troas, and preached until midnight. Luke tells us: “There were many lamps in the upper room where they were gathered together” (Acts 20:8).

“Give me oil in my lamp…”

Jesus referred to John the Baptist as a lamp, saying, “You have sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth… He was the burning and shining lamp, and you were willing for a time to rejoice in his light” (John 5:33, 35). John was a lamp because the light of God’s truth and the knowledge of the coming Messiah were clearly and publicly portrayed through his ministry. Like all lamps, John could only shine as he had a goodly supply of oil, and the oil which served as his fuel source was the Holy Spirit. The angel declared to John’s father before his conception: “your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John… For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:13-15). Empty lamps may look pretty sitting around the house, but they can serve no useful purpose. Empty lamps do not shine and cannot be lit. But lamps filled with olive oil can shine very well. Likewise, people filled with the Holy Spirit can shine the light of Jesus Christ quite effectively.

In order for an oil lamp to function it must have a wick. You cannot simply drop a match into the oil and expect a nice light to come forth out of the lamp. In the case of olive oil, a match dropped into the oil will do absolutely nothing. Some would expect that you would have a great sudden flame, but olive oil simply will not burn on its own. There must be a functioning wick. The wick is not what is supposed to do the burning, however. The wick carries the oil up to the tip and at that point the oil becomes a flame. If you try using a wick by itself, without any oil, it will burn up immediately. When the lamp is functioning properly the wick does not burn; it can last for days without needing to be adjusted. The oil burns and the wick simply “wicks up” the oil, bringing it to the place where it can produce a flame.

This is a powerful illustration for every believer. When we are functioning as we should in our service to Christ we will never suffer burnout. Because it will not really be us doing the burning, nor even the working. It will be truly “Christ in us.” And because the Holy Spirit is supplying the fuel and the energy we will never burn out. Christian burnout is never because we are doing too much work, but it may be the result of us doing too much of that in which the Holy Spirit is not involved, or perhaps which the Holy Spirit never ordained for us to do in the first place. Such work, void of that heavenly, sweet oil, will drain us and leave us fatigued, worn, and frustrated. Blessed is the man or woman who labors in partnership with the Holy Spirit!

Visible

God’s people are lamps which are intended to light up this world with the light of Jesus Christ. And as Christ shines through us, God has a very definite interest in making sure that we are seen. Jesus said:

No one, when he has lit a lamp, covers it with a vessel or puts it under a bed, but sets it on a lampstand, that those who enter may see the light (Luke 8:16).

These tiny Jewish lamps gave off more light from a raised position than from the floor. And the one thing that would make no sense at all would be to light a lamp and then place it under your bed! No, lamps belong on lampstands in order for them to function most effectively. And of course Jesus is not talking about literal lamps here, but about people. Again, we are His lamps. And the light we shine, the light of Jesus Christ, is so incredibly important and vital to our world, that God has a very keen desire to provide each lamp with an appropriate lampstand – a device or situation or means by which we are seen publicly and can influence the most people to put their trust in Jesus.

Types of Lampstands

The most fundamental and common of God’s many lampstands is the local church. The gathering of believers in a particular community is to be a shining light to that region. We are not to hide ourselves away from the world, meeting secretly in hidden buildings, and never interacting with the world around us. That would be a lamp placed under a bed – illogical, impractical, useless, and worthless. No, we must be seen. Our message is too important, the gospel we carry brings eternal life to men and women hurtling headlong to eternal destruction. There are many ways in which churches can make themselves visible. Doing works of service in their community is one of them. Evangelistic outreaches, food pantries, providing shelter for unwed mothers, free medical clinics, distribution of Christian literature… the list is endless. But we cannot afford to sit around and do nothing, being seen by no one, and affecting no one. We are Christ’s lamps, and lamps are supposed to be up there on lampstands, providing benefits to all who come into the house.

Our individual ministries require lampstands as well. A website can be a lampstand. We often get donations through our website, and one thing that especially blesses me is when we get donations from people in countries other than America. It’s not so much the donation itself, although I definitely appreciate that. But the thing that excites me most is the fact that the donation demonstrates that our website is reaching people in faraway places. It is teaching and feeding Jesus’ sheep, and hopefully leading people to Jesus in places where I have never been and probably will never go. Anywhere people can get online, they can have access to the hundreds of articles, audio recordings, and videos our ministry produces. Even at night when I am fast asleep in Texas, I like to think that people are reading and listening to my messages on our website all over the world. Our website never stops preaching Jesus Christ.

The reason we need lampstands is that we are called to minister – to people! No matter how gifted you are, if you go out into the forest and preach or sing to the trees, your gift is useless. Nobody is hearing, nobody is being blessed, no one is getting saved, no one is being encouraged. If we are to serve as “burning and shining lamps” we must find a way to get up on a lampstand of some kind or another and go public with what we have to share. That may be as simple as teaching a Sunday school class to a small group of rowdy six-year-olds, or as impressive as reaching many millions through a television program, but we need to find our lampstand, get up on it, and start shining!

Lampstand Builder

It is not our job to provide our own lampstands, however. God is the Master-craftsman, and He knows how to fashion a lampstand which will be a perfect fit for you and your unique gifts and calling. Our job is first to prepare ourselves, so that when the divine hand begins to lift us up and place us on our designated stand, we will be able to start shining, brightly and beautifully. And secondly, we must make use of present opportunities, even though the lampstands currently available to us may seem so very tiny. Perhaps they only lift us a few inches off the ground, while we hope and dream of lampstands that will lift us into the stratosphere. Do not despair, and do not despise small and unimpressive opportunities. It is those who make use of smaller lampstands who end up being provided larger ones, while those who sit around dreaming of a worldwide platform will generally never receive any platform at all.

The size of your lampstand is not the important thing. The size of your flame is not even the most important thing. Lamps and wicks come in many sizes, and a small lamp with a small wick may be burning far more efficiently than a much larger lamp with a large wick. The ultimate measure of your success is determined by the purity of the light that shines forth from you. If that light is Jesus, pure Jesus, undimmed by worldly pursuits or selfish ambitions, undiluted by emphases that lead away from Christ rather than toward Him, you are doing your job well. Keep on shining! God is pleased.

 

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