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.”


 Akeldama: The Field of Blood

Matthew 27:3-10

Then Judas, who betrayed him, when he saw that Jesus was condemned, felt remorse, and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, “I have sinned in that I betrayed innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? You see to it.” He threw down the pieces of silver in the sanctuary, and departed. He went away and hanged himself. The chief priests took the pieces of silver, and said, “It’s not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is the price of blood.” They took counsel, and bought the potter’s field with them, to bury strangers in. Therefore that field was called “The Field of Blood” to this day. Then that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled, saying, “They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him upon whom a price had been set, whom some of the children of Israel priced, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.” (WEB)

As I was researching aspects of pottery for my oil lamp posts I came across a conundrum in Mt. 27. I was familiar with the “problem” in the texts we have presently after nearly 2000 years removed from Matthew’s production.

To present the difficulty briefly: the text quotes a relatively long portion of Zechariah, yet it seems to say that the text comes from Jeremiah. Here is Zechariah’s passage with its immediate context from which Matthew quotes:

I said to them, “If you think it best, give me my wages; and if not, keep them.” So they weighed for my wages thirty pieces of silver. Yahweh said to me, “Throw it to the potter, the handsome price that I was valued at by them!” I took the thirty pieces of silver, and threw them to the potter, in the house of Yahweh. (11:12,13 WEB)

One fact that Zechariah doesn’t mention is the place of the field which is in the Valley of Ben Hinnom which was the garbage dump of that day. Jeremiah (ch. 19), however, was instructed by the Lord to go to this valley and break a jar of pottery, indicating the coming judgment in Jeremiah’s time. Therefore, this passage could be a strong allusion since, in the Hebrew mind and history, often reoccurring events feature prominently in prophetic fulfillment. This concept is fairly foreign to our present way of thinking but it wasn’t to Jews of the first century. To further clarify this point: a historical connection existed with the judgment in Jeremiah’s day to the coming judgment the nation would receive at the hands of Titus in 70 A.D. since instead of the leaders and the majority of the nation accepting the Messiah, they asked for Him to be crucified. Matthew is trying to show his readers the striking parallels of divine retribution. This is the view of some commentators of Matthew’s Gospel. I think, however, another explanation could provide a plausible solution.

Before I offer my solution concerning the Jeremiah reference, I want to address a further problem that some find in the reference to this event in Acts 1. Some commentators seem to find a variance to Matthew when, in my mind, there is none. Readers may think the account of Judas’ demise is why Luke (the writer of Acts) refers to the field as the “field of blood.” So, they will say: “it is Jesus’ blood in Matthew and Judas’ blood in Acts.” This is not what it says or not what Luke is saying. Yes, no doubt, blood was spilled when Judas committed suicide but the word “blood” is not even used in Acts. The antecedent of “field of blood” was Judas’ “wickedness” in betraying Jesus. The writers in the first century wrote, thought, and spoke very differently than we do today in that the antecedents oftentimes were well separated from the reference, contra our present custom of keeping them in close proximity.

Further, Judas didn’t commit suicide at Akeldama; it was the Temple priests and officers who bought and managed this field, probably well after Judas’ death. Luke says, “he bought a field,” but that is his way of expressing how the proceeds of betrayal were used, not the actual occurrence. Again, this is very much different from our way of expressing things 2000 years hence. To try and understand the Biblical text apart from some of these factors is to read it anachronistically and, as a result, misunderstand God’s revelation to our own detriment.

Now, to the matter of the Jeremiah reference in Matthew, when, for the most part, Zechariah is quoted in the text. Today when I read the Bible and compare other portions with it, it is easily accessed by mouse clicks using apps on my computer. Of course this technology was nonexistent during the first century and neither was printing or efficient paper production. Also, besides paper, sometimes animal skins were used to record text and this method too proved very labor-intensive.

Matthew’s Gospel, I believe, was inerrant when it was produced by Matthew’s hand or dictated to his amanuensis. Today, none of the extant codices or even any of the fragments is the original ones produced. All of our preserved manuscripts of the Biblical accounts are copies by a “further hand.” The New Testament is very reliable even though the copyists were not the meticulous scribal class of the Jews who diligently preserved the Old Testament. What makes the Christian writings reliable is the sheer number of portions, which, compared together, reveals the account.

So, this helps explain the conundrum of Jeremiah when, probably, Zechariah is meant. The explanation that the names sound the same in Greek (as they do in English) is most likely why an amanuensis miscopied the text. This was not Matthew’s writer but a later copyist wanting to produce this work for congregations of Christians in other places. Since the Old Testament text was scarce too because of the same technological deficiencies, the producers could not readily check the references. Jeremiah has several portions which refer to pottery and the potter, so, the Christian copyist innocently believed it was Jeremiah which spoke of this potter’s field in Matthew’s Gospel. The tremendous spread of Christianity in the first century during the Pax Romana meant that Christian communities needed their own copies for study. Since a great need existed, it is plausible to believe that the copyists possibly rushed their production and, therefore, errors were produced. It just so happens that the earliest extant manuscripts we have list Jeremiah instead of Zechariah.

“Who is This?…

“Who is This?”

In Matthew.21.1 we have the account of the “Triumphal Entry” of Jesus from the Mount of Olives at Bethphage to the entrance of Jerusalem. This fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah 9.9 which depicted the Messianic King humbly riding on a donkey and the colt of a donkey. Frequent readers of the Bible will be familiar with the scene of the people spreading their cloaks and palm branches on the path for this procession through the valley from the Olivet Mount to Mount Zion. The Christians later adopted the Sunday before Easter to commemorate this event as Palm Sunday. The praise that Jesus received from this joyful assembly was “Hosanna to the Son of David” signifying Him as the promised Divine King from David’s lineage who would reign over God’s people during a time of blessed security.

The noisy sounds of celebration as Jesus entered through Jerusalem’s gates prompted the onlookers to ask the identity of this person who was receiving such lavish praise. The answer: “Jesus the prophet from Nazareth.” This is of course true that Jesus was a prophet similar to the other prophets sent the Jewish nation previously by God throughout their history. Yet He was more. He was their King, “The Son of David” as many had just exclaimed during His journey from Olivet. He was also the priest in Melchizedek’s line who would soon enter heaven with His own blood to make atonement on our behalf in that greater Temple in heaven as is depicted in the book of Hebrews, the antitype of the earthly sacrifices of the Jewish Nation.

The question some may ask: “why did those in Jerusalem ask who this was if ‘Jesus had gone about doing good’ among the people for a period of about three years?” The answer may not readily be apparent unless one is familiar with the scene, timing, and culture of the Jews.

It helps to know the background of the scene with which we are presented in Mt.21 to answer the question of unfamiliarity of Jesus. This was just before the feast of Passover (Pesach), First Fruits (barley), and Feast of Unleavened Bread. As commanded by God, one of the three periods of the Jewish year where every male of the people were to “appear before God” at Jerusalem. The other times were Pentecost (Shavuot: wheat offering, two leavened loaves) and Tabernacles (Sukkot: summer fruits of grapes, figs, pomegranates, others).

So let us imagine the surrounding countryside: Jews, not only from all over the land of Israel, but from all the other countries were now encamped in the open spaces surrounding Jerusalem in tents. The pilgrims would have their beasts of burden with them, possibly sacrificial animals, and their families too, especially if from the immediate area. The scene would have been a bustling crowd where not every person had direct sight lines or were strangers to the local fame of Jesus. Bible commentators often estimate that the population of Jerusalem would swell to from more than a million to several millions during the time of the Jewish festivals. So it is easy to see the reason for the inquiry of who was the celebrated rider entering into Jerusalem.

This fact of festival attendance also helps explain Paul’s “other occupation” of tent making. A ready market would have existed among the Hellenistic Jews of Asia Minor and Greece who sought to be faithful to God’s command to appear at Jerusalem during these three set times.

Another cultural consideration as to why Jesus was not easily recognizable in this instance as well as at other times could be because of the general appearance of Hebrew men. Clothing, before looms were mechanized, was probably not very distinctive. The cloaks were woolen most likely and possibly fairly uniform. Turbans were maybe all white and prevented easy recognition of a person’s distinctive features. Further, all the men wore full beards which naturally hid the face.

All of these factors make this question a natural one despite the local acquaintance of the people or their leaders who sought to kill Him. So we see how knowing some of the setting helps explain the Biblical text. Although I did not consult it for this article, an old standard on the culture of Israel during the time of Jesus is Alfred Edersheim’s “Sketches of Jewish Social Life” written more than a century ago. It is still a good volume on the historical context of Christ’s life.

Book Review: Simply Jesus

Simply Jesus

Tom Wright (aka N. T. Wright)

This little volume had just been stocked at the Christian bookstore as a new arrival and it was the only one on the shelf so I purchased it to see Tom Wright’s treatment of this subject. The subject is our Lord and how Tom Wright described Jesus in context would reveal much about the author.

I have not read any of Tom Wright’s books before this one but am familiar with him and some of his writings only in excerpt-form quoted by others on various subjects. N. T. Wright is one of the premiere New Testament scholars of our time. His scholarship and output is impressive. He uses plain speech and a conversational tone in this small book as the title implies. The thoughts and materials are, however, quite advanced as he places Jesus in a historical Jewish context (more about this later in critical form). The author displays acute familiarity with primary non-Biblical sources surrounding the time of the Messiah’s first advent.

A note about this review is appropriate here as this reviewer has gifted the book to others and is writing from memory without the benefit of notes. I hope to read this compact volume again, notate it, and expand the review. The book left a distinct impression on me and it took me more than several days to read and ponder the author’s case.

Initially, the book deals with how readers understand the words of Scripture about Jesus. Tom Wright identifies a common fallacy with many today who try to apply their reading of the Bible to their everyday life. Sometimes Christians attempt to make the Bible more relevant than it truly is and read the text anachronistically. This means they wrench the historicity of the account and think about it only in their own context of 21st century thought. This is a valid and clearly recognized problem of our Christian society’s attempt to be practical at the expense of the historical settings. Christians have been guilty of anachronism through the ages and is somewhat typical when reading about ordinary believers in church history. This is much less true of Biblical scholars historically since they recognize both the language and cultural contexts and will be more sensitive regarding relevant application.

What Tom Wright proposes is to contextualize the account into an historical Jewish setting to understand the words and actions of our Lord. This, I believe, is only less than half of the solution. Christian educators have long been aware of their students’ tendency to “read into” the Bible the issues that are affecting themselves and to seek a remedy by applying verses in a seemingly haphazard way. The standard solution of educators generally has been to recommend familiarization of the whole Bible especially the Old Testament in any study of Jesus, His fulfillment of prophecy, and His teachings to the disciples. This, by far, is the need for almost any understanding of the Christian experience. In other words: Christ should be contextualized from the whole revelation in the Bible and not solely from the immediate Jewish historical setting.

Jesus did not come primarily to 1st Century Israel in their recent context of the last 400 years but in the fulfillment of the promise of the Messiah throughout earth’s history. He is the One who would crush the serpent’s head sustaining injury to His heal in that He is forever enthroned as a Lamb slain (Rev.7:17, 13:8) which God had promised Adam and Eve in the garden after their fall (Gen.3:15). To look upon Jesus as a Jew in Jewish history, I believe, is very incomplete since He is much, much more. This, in my view, is the major failing of Tom Wright’s “Simply Jesus.”

Additionally, in the last section of the book, Wright tries to show what the fulfillment of The Kingdom looks like by saying the spiritual lives of the disciples now empowered with the Holy Spirit references the phrase in the Lord’s prayer: “Thy Kingdom Come.” Tom Wright is saying that the overcoming life of Christians is God’s Kingdom manifest here on earth. While there may be aspects of Kingdom life in today’s members of the future Kingdom of God, this doesn’t constitute the promised coming Kingdom of our Lord on earth. Notice what the Apostle Peter says during his address to the crowd after healing the man at the Temple in Acts3:19- “Therefore repent and turn back so that your sins may be wiped out,20 so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and so that he may send the Messiah appointed for you – that is, Jesus.21 This one heaven musts receive until the time all things are restored, which God declared from times long ago through his holy prophets.” (NET). Here Peter was used to heal a man through the Spirit, and two thousand people were also added to the church yet Peter speaks of a time of refreshing after Jesus returns and restores what was promised to Israel: the literal, physical earthly Kingdom of the Messiah. While Tom Wright mentions a future aspect and even a “snatching away” (Rapture), the revealed Kingdom promises, especially from the Old Testament, is almost completely minimized for the view of a present fulfillment of “Thy Kingdom Come.”

Further, Wright describes John the Baptist’s feelings when he sent his disciples to Jesus asking if Jesus was the One who was to come or if they should look for another. He has the Baptist wondering why he sits in prison and not delivered and standing next to King Jesus. This is not what the Baptist expected since his earlier witness portrays Jesus as “Look,the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”(Jn.1:29bNIV). He sees Jesus in the larger role of sacrificial substitution for all mankind. Only once is it recorded that John the Baptist says “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”(Mt.3:2 ESV) Jesus was the King but the Baptist seemed to emphasize his eternal nature “because he was before me” (Jn.1:30c ESV) and His giving of the Spirit in the New Covenant along with a future judgment. I believe John the Baptist wanted to ask Jesus why He had not yet provided atonement for the world’s sins since He was spending years teaching the disciples and personally going from village to village. Tom Wright cannot explain or prove why the Baptist should expect Jesus to rescue him in His kingly role since John knew Jesus also had to fulfill His Priestly mission of atonement.

Also, this may be a quibble, but Wright chides the Medieval cartographers at least two times saying they had an erroneous idea of Israel and Jerusalem centered at the “heart” of the earth when they drew their maps. Perhaps Dr. Wright is not familiar  with Ezekiel 5:5 where God states His design to place His nation in the center of all the nations at that time in history presumably as an outreach along the busy trading routes directly in the middle of the fertile crescent:  “This is what the sovereign Lord says: This is Jerusalem; I placed her in the center of the nations with countries all around her.” (NET). Today, of course, in the age of the Spirit, God’s witness is in believers, as promised in Jeremiah 31.

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