The Parable of the Lamp

Showing the Principle of Spiritual Increase or Decrease in the Life of the Believer (Mk. 4:21-25, Lk. 8:16-21)

by Thomas W. Finley

The Parable of the Lamp Mk. 4:21-25, Lk. 8:16-21

Click on the green Play button for an audio recording on the subject by Mr. T.W. Finley

This significant parable pictures how believers can grow in Christ, or how their Christian life can decline. Therefore, we must listen to its message if we are to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The parable of the lamp follows the parable of the sower and the soils in two gospels. There are some similar references to the lamp in a couple of other places, but the two parables in Mark 4 and Luke 8 contain a complete message of the lamp. This parable follows the one on the sower and the soils because both parables are actually one in their message, and speak about the same topic, namely the word of God and its effect upon the heart of the believer. The story of the sower shows how fruit is borne in the believer’s life. This analogy is changed in the parable of the lamp to light shining out from the believer’s life. Thus both parables illustrate the growth and manifestation of the life of Christ in the believer. The theme of how the word sown is received by the hearts of men (the soils) is continued in the illustration of the lamp, where the disciples are told, “So take care how you listen” (Lk. 8:18), and “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (a concluding word purposely placed after the parable in Luke 8:18). However, we will see how the parable of the lamp adds some significant concepts that are not so clearly seen in the story of the soils. All of this provides us with much instruction for our Christian life.

Since the parables of the soils and the lamp are definitely linked, we can easily interpret some of details concerning the lamp by looking back to details given in the parable on the soils. With this in mind, let us proceed to look at the parable of the lamp verse by verse and see what it will speak to us.

“And He was saying to them, ‘A lamp is not brought to be put under a basket, is it, or under a bed? Is it not brought to be put on a lampstand?’” (Mk. 4:21)

The lamp represents the believer’s new life in Christ, which is to shine out with the character and works of Christ. We understand the meaning of the lamp in this way from the following passage:

"’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)

Some other passages which use “light” as an image for the believer’s new life would be Phil. 2:15 and Eph. 5:8-11. In the parable in Luke 8, Jesus states, “No one after lighting a lamp . . .” (Lk. 8:16). This wording may give an even stronger hint of the new life of the believer, which begins as a new birth in our spirit. Pr. 20:27 states that “the spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord” and it is our human spirit which is reborn (Jn. 3:6-7). As the parable of the lamp underscores the need for believers to obey the Lord’s words in order to shine, we also see this in John’s gospel where Christ declares that He is the Light of the world:

“Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.’" (Jn. 8:12)

In Mk. 4:21 the Lord tells us that the lamp is intended to shine, so to cover it with a “basket” or place it under a “bed” would hide its shining. Here we see a reference to things that can hinder the function and the normal development of the life of Christ in the believer. The basket refers to the common household vessel that was used for flour and other dry items. It was used to contain and measure out the necessities of life. In Matt. 6:25-34 Jesus taught that anxiety over the necessities of life was a common problem for man. Then, in the parable of the sower, we see such concerns as part of the “worries of the world” pictured as “thorns” that choke the seed (Mk. 4:19). So the “basket” that can hide the light of the lamp reflects back to the “thorns” of the soil in the preceding parable. Surely the Lord Jesus is speaking to His believers here, warning us that we must be ever watchful that our hearts not be occupied with making a living and meeting our basic needs. Instead, we should seek first the kingdom of God and trust our Father to meet all of our needs (Matt. 6:33).

The “bed” in Mk. 4:21 illustrates another hindrance to the disciple’s shining out of Christ’s life. The bed signifies ease, comfort and self-indulgence. It reflects back to “the deceitfulness of riches,” “the pleasures of this life” and the “desire for other things,” which are “thorns” choking the development of the seed and making it unfruitful (Mk. 4:7, 19; Lk. 8:14). What a warning this is for us! It calls us to let go of seeking after pleasures and riches in order to seek after Him and His will for us. If we do not give up our desires in order to follow Christ, then our light will be hidden and our spiritual fruit will never come to maturity. We will miss our purpose here and will lose out on blessings in the next age (Christ’s 1,000 year kingdom).

When Jesus indicates that the normal function of the lamp is to be placed upon a lampstand in order to provide light to people, he is also indicating that it is an abnormal condition when the light of the lamp is hidden by the basket or the bed. This contrast between the normal and abnormal spiritual conditions parallels the normal condition of the good soil and the abnormal condition of the other soils in the companion parable. This thought of hiding the light, an abnormal condition, leads us to the next verse in Mark 4.

“’For nothing is hidden, except to be revealed; nor has anything been secret, but that it would come to light. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.’” (Mk. 4:22-23).

The phrase “has anything been secret” in Greek literally means “become covered” and refers to the action of hiding.[1] Here the Lord is actually warning us that if we hide the light in our lives, this action of hiding, although done secretly in our hearts, will be revealed. It will be revealed at the future judgment of believers at the Judgment Seat of Christ (the Bema). This idea is supported in other places in Scripture:

“For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.” (Ecc, 12:14)

“On the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 2:14)

“The sins of some men are quite evident, going before them to judgment; for others, their sins follow after.

Likewise also, deeds that are good are quite evident, and those which are otherwise cannot be concealed.” (1 Tim. 5:24-25)

The words of our Savior – “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear” – constitute a definite warning that if anyone is willing to hear, he should hear and take appropriate action! This thought is continued and amplified in the next statement of Jesus:

“Then He said to them, ‘Pay attention to what you hear. By the measure you use, it will be measured and added to you.’” (Mk. 4:24, HCSB) [2]

In this word the Lord is giving His hearers, and us, an important principle concerning our “hearing” of the God’s word. We should pay close attention to the word of God heard, giving it genuine consideration and letting it have its way in our lives. If we do, then both light (revelation from the word heard), and spiritual life will be added to us. To “measure” is a figure of speech drawn from the market place where goods were measured or weighed for sale. The degree to which we seek out truth and obey it, to that degree we will gain spiritual knowledge, and spiritual life will be added to us. This positive measuring presents to us the principle of spiritual increase. Whenever we truly open our hearts to hear the truth, God enlightens us. Then, as we obey the light given, His life increases in its manifestation in our lives. We shine more with the glory of Jesus. This truth is confirmed in numerous places in Scripture (e. g., Ps. 1:1-3; Jn. 8:31-34; 17:16-17; 2 Cor. 3:12-18; Jas. 1:21-22; 1 Pet. 2:1-2). We can see this truth paralleled in the parable of the sower and the soils, as the proper reception of the word of God, seen in the good soil, results in fruit. It may be well to add here that although God’s word to us (His speaking) comes primarily through Scripture, it may also come to us through the preaching or testimony of fellow believers, or through God’s “speaking” to us in our conscience or in our spirit.

The good soil is described well in the Amplified version. Here are those verses from two gospels:

“And those that were sown on the good (well –adapted) soil are the ones who hear the Word, and receive and accept and welcome it and bear fruit, some thirty times as much as was sown, some sixty times as much, and some [even] a hundred times as much” (Mk. 4:20, AMP)

“But as for that in the good soil, these are [the people] who hearing the Word, hold it fast in a just – noble, virtuous – and worthy heart, and steadily bring forth fruit with patience.” (Lk. 8:15, AMP)

These verses clearly show us the way we are to have true spiritual increase. We are to open our hearts to the word of God to receive it, accept it and welcome it. This means we want the truth, we are seeking after it, and we are not resistant to it or its demands upon us. We allow the word to do its work in us, letting it teach us and convict us of wrongdoing: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). We let the word teach us what is right in God’s sight and by His grace obey it. The word of God also encourages and strengthens us to live Christ’s life in difficult circumstances (Rom. 15:4). It is also important, as stated in Luke 8:15, that we hold the word fast, treasuring it and meditating upon it so that its truth will not leave us. This practice builds our faith. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). In this way we bring forth spiritual fruit in our lives. This is how we have spiritual increase.

Jesus ends the parable in Mark by stating the principle of spiritual increase and spiritual decrease:

“’For whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.’” (Mk. 4:25)

The one who “has” is the one who has measured out truth to himself as shown above. He has heard the word of God and obeyed it. He is now prepared to receive more, to get more revelation and spiritual life from God and His word. This is the principle of spiritual increase. But, there exists another possibility – there may be a believer who does not have. Such a one does not have because he has not heard the word and allowed it to do its work in his life. How does this happen? Firstly, a believer may simply neglect the word of God. If we neglect reading our Bible we cannot have spiritual increase. Jesus tells us that “’Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God’” (Matt. 4:4). We need to build a habit of coming to God’s word every day. But, we also must come with an open heart – to receive and welcome the word in our hearts, to be attentive to what it will speak to us and do in us. We must have a mind to obey what God’s word teaches. If we are resistant to the word, then we will decrease spiritually. If our heart is occupied with the worries of life, the pleasures of life, or the desire for other things (selfish desires), then our heart will not be good soil for the word to bring forth fruit. We will miss the spiritual revelation God has for us, and we will miss the increase of His life. If we “do not have,” because of neglect of God’s word, or because of unwillingness to obey, or because of preoccupation with matters of this life, then we are in the mode of spiritual decrease. The spiritual revelation and life that we formerly enjoyed will be taken from us and our Christian life will wane. The light we bore of Christ’s life will begin to dim. This is the principle of spiritual decrease. This explains why some saints who used to be shining for Christ now have a diminished testimony.

Those who are undergoing spiritual decrease may still be active in Christian things, even preaching or serving in some way. But, the freshness of Christ’s life and freshness of their revelation will be missing. They are just going through religious motions without the fresh light of Christ shining in their lives. In Luke, there is another factor which is noted in God’s word about those in spiritual decrease:

“’So take care how you listen; for whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has shall be taken away from him.’” (Lk. 8:15)

Those who are in the pathway of spiritual decrease may think that they still have light on God’s word and spiritual life. All of the light (spiritual understanding) that they received in the past does not necessarily disappear at once, but there will be a diminishment. Over time, without a return to the pathway of increase, the revelation they had will grow dimmer. The same is true of their spiritual vitality. They may even preach with fervor, expounding some “new” knowledge of God’s word. They may think and claim that their life is “right with the Lord.” But, they are deceived. Their freshness with the Lord is gone. The real spiritual revelation and the genuine life are taken away from them in some measure, depending upon their degree of neglect of God’s word or their disobedience. Here the warning from James is most appropriate:

“But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.” (Jas. 1:22)

Those who hear but do not obey fall into self-deception about their spiritual condition.

Finally, we should note that the parable of the lamp in Luke is followed by an encounter of the Lord with his human family. This encounter is obviously placed in the text by Luke to highlight and complete the lesson of the parable. Notice the words of Jesus here.

“And His mother and brothers came to Him, and they were unable to get to Him because of the crowd. And it was reported to Him, ‘Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, wishing to see You.’ But He answered and said to them, ‘My mother and My brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it.’” (Lk. 8:18-21)

The potent truths presented to us by this parable should help us be those who are truly hearers and doers of God’s word. If we have gotten onto the path of spiritual decrease, then it is time for us to return to the Lord in humility and confess our failures. God is merciful and He will restore us if we are serious and diligent to return to the path of spiritual increase.

May we hear God’s word to us in the parable of the lamp!

And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13, NASB)

[1] Per The International Critical Commentary. The Darby translation renders the sense of the final part of this verse well: “nor does any secret thing take place, but that it should come to light.”.

[2] The translation of the Holman Christian Standard Bible is preferred here, which is supported by The International Critical Commentary.