I recently came across an illustration which described the Christian life as an oil lamp. I’m guess most of us don’t use oil lamps on a daily basis, if at all. But the oil lamp was a normal part of life in Jesus’ day and works really well as a picture of what it means to live as a Christian.
Being a lamp, or a light, is fundamental to what it means to follow Jesus. He says to his disciples in Matthew 5:
You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
We are the light of the world and we are called to be lights in the world. We are to let our lights shine before people. As Jesus explains this light picture with the use of a lamp, it was an oil lamp that he had in mind. The first century oil lamp was not a complicated thing. It was really not much more than a bowl or a vessel with two important ingredients: a wick and some oil.
The wick is the part that was lit and where the flame burned. The wick of the lamp is the part that people see, the part that is visible and that faces the outside world. In Jesus’ picture, the flame that people see are our actions. “Let your light shine before men,” says Jesus, “that they may see your good deeds…” The wick of our works face the world and burn with the light of God’s grace in our lives.
But here’s the thing that I didn’t understand until recently: wicks need to be trimmed. Trimming involves cutting back the tip of the wick. This allows the oil to be drawn up and burnt more easily. A trimmed wick burns clean and bright. An untrimmed wick, however, will be dim and sooty, and the light and brightness will be hard to see.
As followers of Jesus we have a responsibility to ‘trim our wicks’, that is, to take care of how our lives face the outside world. This doesn’t mean never failing or getting things wrong, far from it. Rather it means making the most of every opportunity to shine brightly and clearly with the love of God to the world around us. I spend most of my day not really thinking about how I shine before other people. Trimming our wick means pay attention to how we shine.
If we left it there, it might seem as if this was all up to us. We put the effort in, trim our wick, and then we will shine brightly. But that’s not the case. The best lamp with the cleanest wick will be useless without oil.
Oil in a lamp is the fuel. It’s what makes the lamp burn, what makes the flame alive, what gives brightness and energy. Unless a lamp has oil, nothing will be possible.
So it is with us. Yes, let’s trim our wicks and look for opportunities as we face the world around us. But first, we need to be filled with oil. Throughout the Bible, oil is a picture of the Holy Spirit, and it’s no different here. We need as Christians to be filled with the Holy Spirit in order to burn brightly for Jesus, indeed to burn at all. The power and fuel for the Christian life and witness comes only from the Spirit. We cannot generate it ourselves, it must be given to us. The Spirit is given to us in abundance from our loving Heavenly Father, so it is to him that we must come daily in dependence.
We live as lights in the world. We live looking outward for opportunities to shine. But we live in and out of the power of the Holy Spirit. Let’s pray daily for the oil of the Spirit to fill us, enable us, fuel us and bring us into living flame.
Top image by Arne Hückelheim – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12395926