The Lord Jesus in His teaching often took by way of illustration objects which were perfectly familiar to the audience before Him. On one occasion He was enforcing the necessity that the truth of God which He came to declare should be spread abroad for the benefit of as many as possible, and not be concealed like hidden treasure. In order to impress this fact upon those who heard Him He made use of four of the ordinary utensils to be found in every Galilean home, viz , (1) a candle or lamp; (2) a candlestick or lampstand; (3) a bushel or corn-measure; and (4) a bed or mattress. These articles and their several uses would of course be well-known to all who listened to Him. His words to His hearers were: "Is the lamp brought to be put under the bushel, or under the bed, and not to be put on the stand?" (Mark 4:21, R.V.).
Clearly the Lord did not intend that His words should be taken in their literal sense. If a lamp were placed underneath a corn measure, its light would be hidden, while it would burn very poorly through lack of air, and would probably go out altogether. If it were put under a mattress, it would either be extinguished or it would set the bed alight. Every sane person would set the lamp upon its proper stand, so that it might give light to all in the room, or to any who might enter.
This saying of our Lord has a special significance appropriate to its context. But my only purpose in this letter is to draw attention to the light which you, as believers, are expected to shed abroad in this evil world, and to refer more especially to some of the hindrances to that shining which are indicated by the bushel and the bed.
The bushel or corn-measure was a useful and necessary article in the home when food-stuffs were purchased or prepared for family consumption. When Boaz measured six measures of barley for Ruth to carry home to Naomi, he was putting the bushel to its proper use. But to turn it upside down over a lamp would be to employ it very much as an extinguisher is put over a burning candle-wick. And in such a case we have a domestic utensil diverted from its legitimate use, and employed to rob all the inmates of the house of the benefits they would derive from the rays of the lamp.
How often legitimate household duties and the like are allowed to interfere with the clear shining of our testimony as "lights in the world" (Phil. 2:15). God's things are not put in the forefront. When the exiles were brought back from the Babylonish captivity to build the ruined temple of Jehovah, some of them set to work in the first place to build fine houses for themselves, leaving God's house to lie waste (Haggai 1:4).
There was no law forbidding them to build for themselves, but their actions were the reverse of showing the Samaritans and others that they esteemed the claims of God their Saviour above every thing else. The bushel was right over the light, instead of being hung up on the nail provided for it when out of use.
Consider whether tidying up the garden, testing the new motor-cycle, making the spring costume, studying for examinations, early and late hours in business, a game of tennis, a walk in the park, minding the baby, and numerous other occupations, good and proper in themselves, may not be used, unintentionally perhaps, to cover up your lamp. There is no transparency in a bushel-basket. And where there might have been a bright light, the corn-measure has brought about darkness.
But what are we to understand by the figure of the bed? A lamp put under a mattress is not merely obscured for a little time, it is extinguished altogether. As a piece of furniture a bed affords comfort for those who are taking rest in sleep. But to spread it over a lighted lamp is an utter abuse of it. As in the case of the bushel, the bed is diverted from its proper use. The bed or mattress was usually rolled up and put away when there was a light in the house. To light the lamp was the signal that there was some work to be done, perhaps the house was to be swept in search of a lost coin. To put the lamp under the bed is to sleep when there is work to be done. It is a symbol of indolence.
Ish-bosheth, the son of Saul, seems to have been a lazy man. At any rate he was resting in the middle of the day. And when he was lying on his bed at noon, two men rushed upon him, and assassinated him. If he had been up and doing some useful work as a king's son, he might have lived longer. Sloth is a great enemy. The sluggard lies at his ease, turning first one way and then another like a door upon its hinges. Where is the light? There is none shining. The lamp is cold and dead. The bed has extinguished it.
Spiritual indolence is accountable for many dull and ineffective testimonies for God. The Lord said, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven." The lamp then is to be trimmed, not covered up. You must take pains about it, and put forth some energy. Seasons of private prayer, careful reading of the scriptures, having intercourse on spiritual topics with other children of God, are all means of increasing the "candle power" of your light.
But prayer, reading the word of God, visiting the sick, doing good to all, especially to those of the household of faith, involve effort and self-denial. But by doing these things the light is kept away from the bed, and placed upon its stand, so that it can shine upon all those around.
Avoid then everything which hinders your light shining. However important a thing may be, do not let it be a shutter to cut off the light. Shake off drowsiness. Remember that he that is slothful in his work is brother to him that is a great waster. The apostle wrote, "Let us not sleep as do others;" and again, "Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light."
I trust that you may all become burning and shining lights, like John the Baptist was.