Even the most brilliant and brightly burning lamps go dim. When we confuse lamps and light, we place ourselves (not to mention the lamps) in a precarious position.
My boys are in the phase of the teenage years when music standings matter. They can tell you who released a new song and how well it is doing. The constant shifts in ratings make my head spin. One week, an artist is the brightest shining lamp, the next week he or she is a discarded piece of history.
Sadly, what is true of popular culture is often equally true within Christian circles. People flock to sit under the teaching of the brightest, lightest lamp. They hang their hope on a borrowed light and often miss the chance to more deeply connect with and worship the source of all light.
Both John the Baptist and his cousin Jesus knew the important distinction between lamps and light.
In the prologue to his gospel account, the Apostle John wrote the following of John the Baptist:
“There as a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light” (John 1:6-8).
Later, when speaking to the Pharisees about his cousin John the Baptist, Jesus said, “He was a burning and shining lamp…But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John” (John 5:35 & 36).
Coming from Jesus, this appellation is an incredible compliment. We know from Matthew’s gospel account that Jesus thought highly of his cousin, saying in his eulogy, “Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11). Yet, Jesus loves John and his followers enough to keep the distinction between light-bearer (lamp) and source (light).
When reading about Jesus and his cousin, I was freshly convicted of two sins. First, I had to admit my sinful tendency to rejoice and glory in bright and shining lamps (the gifted communicators and insightful leaders God has risen up) but to miss the the light both sent and ignited them. Second, I had to admit that, in my flesh, I want people to make much of this lamp. When I slip into this, I have bought the deeper lie that any light I have in some albeit tiny way originates from me or my own merit.
Paul’s word to the prideful Corinthian believers challenges my flesh when it wants to confuse lamp and light:
“What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
Yes, Jesus has called us the light of the world (Matthew 5:14). Yes, he doesn’t light a lamp to hide it under a bushel (Matthew 5:15). But every lamp gives off a borrowed light. When people see our lamps and “see our good works” it is that they might give glory to our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16). He alone is the Light of the World, the One who lit the stars like we light backyard tiki torches.
We are lit, and we are sent. But we are contingent and dependent on the source of all light. In days marked by cults of personality and throngs of people deeply identifying with charismatic leaders, let us not be among those who confuse lamps and light, for our good and God’s glory.