Oil Lamps in the Parables of Jesus

The Christian Life Typified

Christ often refers to a burning oil lamp in His instruction to the disciples signifying the Spirit’s indwelling. Jesus employed the metaphor of a shining lamp to picture the New Covenant’s operation in the life of a Christian.

When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman, describing living water welling up to eternal life, which He would give (another image depicting the Spirit’s filling), He spoke of the new and advanced relationship He would now have with humanity: “But a new time is coming. In fact, it is already here. True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. They are the kind of worshipers the Father is looking for.” (Jn.4:23 NIRV).

This new relationship of worshipping in spirit and truth is the promise of The New Covenant given in Jeremiah 31:

“‘A new day is coming,’ announces the Lord. ‘I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel. I will also make it with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their people long ago. That was when I took them by the hand. I led them out of Egypt. But they broke my covenant. They did it even though I was like a husband to them,’ announces the Lord. ‘This is the covenant I will make with Israel after that time,’ announces the Lord. ‘I will put my law in their minds. I will write it on their hearts. I will be their God. And they will be my people. A man will not need to teach his neighbor anymore. And he will not need to teach his friend anymore. He will not say, ‘Know the Lord.’ Everyone will know me. From the least important of them to the most important, all of them will know me,’ announces the Lord. ‘I will forgive their evil ways. I will not remember their sins anymore.’” (31-34 NIRV).

This promise was what the disciples were to wait for at Pentecost: “‘Do not leave Jerusalem,’ he said. ‘Wait for the gift my Father promised. You have heard me talk about it. John baptized with water. But in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’” (Acts 1:4b-5 NIRV). The fact that it was to Jews exclusively at the primary Feast of Shavuot fulfills the promise that the covenant would be with the “the House of Israel and Judah.” It was a few years later that Gentiles also received this gift.

I have explained the gift, now I want to show its operation through the metaphor of the oil lamp in the parables of Jesus. First, Christ describes this new life in the Sermon on the Mount:

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill can’t be hidden. Also, people do not light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand. Then it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine in front of others. Then they will see the good things you do. And they will praise your Father who is in heaven.” (Mt. 5:14-16 NIRV).

Here, Christ states three qualities of this light: (1) Significant and distinguished: set on a hill. At this point, I want to clarify that we are set on a hill because of the light, not anything intrinsic in our person, but only because of Christ’s indwelling by the Spirit. (2) We have a vital message to give to others: the lamp is placed on a stand. (3) This new life is abundant, victorious, and fruitful: they will see the good things. It is important to note that those who “see the good things . . . praise your Father who is in heaven,” showing that this power to live victorious is from God.

Second, another parable which features oil lamps is the “10 bridesmaids” of The Olivet Discourse when Christ teaches His disciples what the characteristics of the Kingdom will be like just before His return in judgment:

“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten young bridesmaids who took their lamps and went out to meet the groom. Now five of them were wise, and the other five were foolish. The foolish ones took their lamps but didn’t bring oil for them. But the wise ones took their lamps and also brought containers of oil. When the groom was late in coming, they all became drowsy and went to sleep. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Look, the groom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and prepared their lamps. But the foolish bridesmaids said to the wise ones, ‘Give us some of your oil, because our lamps have gone out.’ But the wise bridesmaids replied, ‘No, because if we share with you, there won’t be enough for our lamps and yours. We have a better idea. You go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ But while they were gone to buy oil, the groom came. Those who were ready went with him into the wedding. Then the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came and said, ‘Lord, lord, open the door for us.’ But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’ Therefore keep alert because you don’t know the day or the hour.” (Mt.15:1-13 CEB).

An aspect of the parables of Jesus is that they generally intend to convey a single point and it is wrong to try to find applications from the various features of the story. The point of this parable, it seems to me, is to be in possession of that which produces God’s shining light: His Spirit. Notice that those who couldn’t produce the light were “foolish.” Also, Jesus said that “He never knew them.” In my mind, Christ is saying: “make sure you know Me.”

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