by Heather Bock
My mom used to have an oil lamp in our house, one that had a long wick dangling down into its depths. The oil would slowly make its climb up the thin rope ladder, and when my mom struck a match to the top, it would produce its steady glow as it continually fed on the fuel of the oil. I was intrigued by this unique candle, the oil replacing the melted-wax fuel of the modern candle.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:14-16).
Lamps in Jesus’ day were oil lamps, so when He spoke these words, that was the picture He intended His hearers to envision. By the way, a basket would have to be pretty deep to cover an oil lamp, which had its wick burning out in the open like a wax candle’s does. Not only does covering an oil lamp make it ineffective and wastes the oil, but it also makes it dangerous. If the basket wasn’t thick enough to snuff out the flame, it seems likely it would catch fire, especially as the flame came out one side, not out of the top. No wonder the passage says no one with an oil lamp would do this.
Covering our light for Jesus could be dangerous, too. Jesus’ main message was that He wants us all to shine bright for all to see so that we might glorify God. Maybe hiding our light could burn those nearest to us, but more likely, we will be the ones scorched. If not that, we will be in danger of letting our light die, useless.
Besides keeping our lights burning out in the open for all to see, letting oxygen flow around our flame, how else do we keep burning? Fuel. What was the fuel in those lamps of Jesus’ day again? Oil.
Jesus made a point of this oil in another story. He told a story in Matthew 25 of ten virgins waiting for a bridegroom to come. According to a commentary I read,
“There were three stages to a Jewish wedding in that day. The first was engagement – a formal agreement made by the fathers. The second was betrothal – the ceremony where mutual promises are made. The third was marriage – approximately one year later when the bridegroom came at an unexpected time for his bride” (Guzik).
Apparently ten was a typical number for the attendants of the bride at a wedding, and these attendants would wait with the bride and go along with her in a procession with their lamps when the bridegroom finally arrived.
I have to say two things here: one, I’m relieved to hear that these virgins don’t seem to have all been preparing to marry the same bridegroom as I thought, and two, I’m really glad this custom hasn’t continued on to the modern age. Maybe it was exciting to these ladies, but I have to say, sorry, Greg, but I would find that pretty annoying. I know, I know, I do see the symbolism behind it. After all, we’re all waiting for our one Bridegroom, and we don’t know when He’ll arrive, either. THAT isn’t annoying to me, but I do long for Him to come soon!
Let me get back on track, though. Some of these women were wise and brought extra oil. Some did not. It wasn’t easy to light a lamp in those days–they didn’t have matches at the ready. They would have to hit two rocks together or rub two sticks together to make a spark, so since olive oil was plentiful, many just let their lamps burn. This would explain why the foolish women ran out of oil while they waited.
Jesus’ primary message here is about end times, that we need to be ready for our Lord to return. However, I believe there’s one more picture we can pick up from this. Again, with what were these lamps filled? Oil, right?
Did you know that oil, usually olive oil, is one of the symbols for the Holy Spirit in the Bible? I don’t have room for an in-depth study of this now (although I wish I could–how rich!), but what was used in anointing? Oil. I could show you many other connections, but what was the first event to happen to two major people in the Bible–Saul and David–when they were anointed with oil (I Sam. 10:1,6; 16:13)? They were filled with the Holy Spirit.
If we are Christians with the Holy Spirit filling our lamps, I don’t believe any genies will come out if we are rubbed the wrong way. (By the way, ever read ancient stories about genies? They’re basically evil spirits. Is somebody trying to steal a godly symbol?) However, we do want the Holy Spirit to fill us up to the top, spilling out for others. In Ephesians 5:18, Paul exhorts us to be filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the fuel that allows us to burn bright before all men. Just as my mother’s lamp produced a faithful flame with the steady feed of oil, we must be steadily fed by a rich supply of the Holy Spirit if we want to be ready to shine our light for our Bridegroom.
P.S. If you’re interested in the imagery of fire, I wrote another post called “Blow My Embers Into Flame” about how the Holy Spirit is also the wind that breathes into our fires.