In the ancient world lamps were usually made of pottery shaped like a shell with a rim across the top and a spout at one end to hold the wick. The lamps of Christians were decorated with Christian symbols. Olive oil was the most common fuel, and although lamps could hold enough oil to last through the night, housewives had to get up during the night and trim the wick. In Jesus’ day, the most common lamp was a wheel shape,
and these stayed lit for five hours. The foolish virgins in Jesus’ parable didn’t plan ahead and bring enough fuel to refill their lamps after the five hours were up (Matt 25:1-12).
LAMPS IN WORSHIP
The most frequent images of lamps in the Bible relate to worship. The lamps on the seven-branched lamp stand in the tabernacle were to be constantly lit (Ex 30:7-8) as a symbol of God’s perfection and constant guidance. The enduring light is a metaphor of God’s covenant blessing on the Davidic dynasty, his promise to be with them and lead them: “But the Lord, recalling the promise he had made to David, didn’t want to destroy David’s family. The LORD had told David that he would always give him and his descendants a shining lamp” (2 Chron 21:7). Of course, the Davidic line eventually culminated in the birth of Christ, and the lamp symbolism continues in him as well. We are told that the coming kingdom needs no lamps because “the glory of God [gives] it light. The lamb [is] its lamp” (Rev 21:23). The lamp in the temple has been replaced by the true light, Jesus.
LAMPS TO GUIDE THE WAY
Lamps are also symbol of guidance. The guidance of a parent is likened to a lamp (Prov 6:23), and “a person’s soul is the LORD’s lamp. It searches his entire innermost being” (Prov 20:27). God’s Word is also compared to a lamp that gives light for the steps ahead (Ps 119:105). In the ancient world, so few light sources were available that the darkness could be terrifying and dangerous, so people would have resonated with and been comforted by the image of a light to guide their path.
The light we receive from Jesus is meant to be shared with others. John the Baptist was compared to a lamp for the Good News he brought: “John was a lamp that gave off brilliant light. For a time you enjoyed the pleasure of his light” (John 5:35). Jesus called his disciples to be lights in the world. He said, “You are light for the world. A city can not be hidden when it is located on a hill. No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket. Instead, everyone who lights a lamp puts it on a lamp stand. Then its lights shines on everyone in the house. In the same way let your light shine in front of people. Then they will see the good that you do and praise your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:14-16). The light of Jesus shining through our lives will show others the way to true life. Just as those who have a lamp have a desire and responsibility to share the light it gives with others, so we have a desire and responsibility to share the light of Christ with those who have not seen it.
The fact that Jesus calls each believer a lamp not only shows how we reflect his light but also symbolizes the movement of the location for worship from the temple into the heart of each believer through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The literal lamp of God’s presence used to be in the temple; then it was preserved figuratively through David’s line. After that, Jesus, the true Light, came to dwell among us. Now that light is present in each believer through the Holy Spirit, and one day we will no longer need lamps because we will be in the presence of the true Light for all eternity. The Lamp symbolism has come full circle, mirroring the story of redemption spreading from one people, the Jews, to all nations through Christ.
No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket. Instead, everyone who lights a lamp puts it on a lamp stand. Then its light shines on everyone in the house. In the same way let your light shine in front of people. Then they will see the good that you do and praise your Father in heaven. (Matt 5: 15-16)
Sources: The A to Z Guide To Bible Signs & Symbols Understanding Their Meaning and Significance pg 146 Lamp