The Endangered Fire (Revisited)
Robert Wurtz II
You shall command the people of Israel that they bring to you pure beaten olive oil for the light, that a lamp may regularly be set up to burn. (Exodus 27:20 ESV)
Mark 4:21 And he said unto them, Is a lamp brought to be put under a bushel, or under a bed? and not to be set on a lampstand?
And the foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise answered, saying, “No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.” (Matthew 25:8–9 NKJV)
The burning lamp motif is found all throughout both the Old and New Testaments. Although there was an earthly use for lamps, there is also a spiritual reality to be understood. In Exodus 27 God commanded Moses to place the lampstand in the Wilderness Tabernacle. The High Priest was ultimately responsible for making sure this lampstand was properly serviced. It was the responsibility of the children of Israel to bring pure oil to the priests for use in the lamps on the lampstand (Exodus 27:20).
The lampstand had seven lamps with three on each side of a center lamp (The Western lamp). The center lamp inclined towards the Holy of Holies and the six other lamps were slightly bent towards the center lamp. When the lamps were serviced, the old oil was dumped and fresh pure oil and a new wick were installed. The freshly serviced lamp was then lit from one of the other lamps. The center lamp could not be relit except with fire directly from the burning altar. The altar burned with the sacred fire that fell from Heaven. Nadab and Abihu learned the hard way that God does not tolerate common fire in His service.
Fire as Light
We find the lamp motif again when Jesus asks, “Is a lamp brought to be put under a bushel, or under a bed? and not to be set on a lampstand?” A lamp is a light source. It contains four essential parts: the lamp, the wick, the oil, and the fire. These things are figurative. First, the Lord Jesus stated, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (John 9:5 NKJV) While Jesus walked the earth, He was the lamp that lighted the world. Second, He also told the Disciples, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” (Matthew 5:14 NKJV) If I might so say, He was the center lamp (The Western lamp) lighted from the Fire sent down from Heaven. From Him, the rest of the lamps are lit.
The implication of Mark 4:21 is that the lamp is introduced to illuminate what would otherwise be in darkness. The fact that it is ” brought ” (lit cometh) implies that God intends to do something about the darkness of this present evil world. The lamp was sent and therefore ” cometh ” to bring light. John writes, “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:19 NKJV) The lamp has motion — it is deliberately moving into an area of darkness. Jesus was the first lamp and from Him, other lamps are lit and sent. If the sent lamps do their job, very well; if they do not do their job, they are as worthless as salt that has lost its savor. It has the same value as a flashlight with dead batteries during a power outage. In fact, when this rule is applied to the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2, the Lampstand is endangered of being removed. Why? Because a lamp (church) with no fire is a stumbling block in a darkened world as surely as a blackened-out, lightless lampstand is a trip-hazard in a darkened room.
Our passage in Mark 4:21 assumes that the lamp is indeed lit. We know there are dangers to this lit lamp and they both relate to attempts to reduce the “candle power” of the light. That is to say, a burning believer is a shining light who does not flow with a crowd. Many people cannot handle the contrast between them and the world so they try to tone things down a bit. Almost like a dimmer switch in a dining hall at a dinner party that lowers the lights to create an atmosphere, but is still bright enough to barely see. Nevertheless, no one would place a burning lamp under a bushel or under a bed. Keep in mind that a bushel was not a wooden basket. The NIV more accurately reads “bowl” in place of “bushel.” These were likely metal pans like the one pictured below called in Latin a modius (this is the word Mark used in the Greek). This modius would be around 9 liters in volume (about 4.5 two liters or over 2 one-gallon milk jugs).
In Roman times these items could be highly decorated. Obviously, if this modius was placed over the lamp the light would be blocked and the fire would soon go out from lack of oxygen. If the lamp was placed under the “bed” the fire would sooner or later spread to the bed itself endangering the very life of the person and the house. Clearly, this explains why our Lord asks the rhetorical question to begin with. In real life, no person would do either of these suggestions.
Lights in the World
No reasonable person would hide a lamp under his bed, under a bowl, or in a “secret place.” If a person has sense enough not to do such a thing — we know God would never do it. Burning for God is not a private affair. He intends that the lighted ones go out and be a light in a darkened world. Countless Christians have allowed their fire to go out because they tried to cover it up or would not move out when sent. Christians try to bring their fire to places like Christian internet discussion forums and end up nearly burning the place down. This is no different than placing the fire under your bed. Fire is real good at a reasonable distance, but if you touch it directly to something or someone it will burn them. This is the common sense side of Mark 4:21. Our love for God can become a burning zeal that takes no prisoners in the wrong environment.
Our Oil — Our Responsibility
Our final passage deals with the parable of the five wise and five foolish virgins. As with every good parable, the message is applicable in any number of related circumstances. (Mounce. NIBC). The primary aspect I wish to point out is that we are responsible for our own oil. And the foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise answered, saying, “No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.” The idea of “buying” idea is akin to the admonition of the Lord Jesus in Revelation 3:18 when He counseled the Laodiceans to “buy” of him gold tried in the fire.
The gifts of God are freely given — but they do not come without a cost. We must spend our most precious resource to gain them: time. We have to go to Him in prayer and in study and allow Him to give us the oil for our lamp. In fact, oil is derived from crushing the olive. Sometimes our devotions are like that. God speaks to us in our circumstances by His Holy Spirit and through His word and it becomes oil to us. No one else can do it for us. We have to do it ourselves. That is not to say that Christ cannot use our oil when He calls for it to be a blessing to others — He can; however, our own oil must be our own responsibility. We have to “buy” of Him. This requires renunciation of self and of the world. (Vincent) It requires a willingness to take responsibility for working out our own salvation. My lamp — my oil. I will either be wise about it or foolish about it. I will either get about procuring my own oil or I will procrastinate until it is too late and the door is shut.
Fire for This Present World
God intends to send Fire on the earth, that is, the LIGHT of the revelation of Himself. He desires to use His children as instruments of illumination, as they let their light shine before men. He intends His children to fulfill their calling as priests unto God and burn for Him. The fire fell when the Holy Spirit was received, and in our devotional life, the pure oil is flowing. We have a commission. The lamp is burning — now Christ can send us. These are the true “sent” ones. Would to God that men and women would simply move out on fire for Him burning as lights in the world. Fire is what it is and can be no other. It cannot help but bring light. But it is an endangered fire — always at the mercy of those who would neglect their oil, employ their bushel or place it under their bed.