Oil for our lamps
Intro: When our kids were little, we had a VHS tape, yes our kids remember VHS tapes, we even still have a few sitting around. And we had one that had old Sunday School songs on it, and I think it might have had a few other traditional children’s songs on there too. I remember my mom saying she was glad they still had these old songs around for kids.
I kind of shrugged my shoulders at the time, but now I find the value in passing those things down from generation to generation. Like the hymns we sing each week, any of the other churches that we’ve gone to do not sing hymns or old choruses. They sing contemporary choruses. So it’s nice to be reminded of these hymns and have given our kids exposure to the depth and richness of these hymns and traditions of a church like this one.
But you know, one of the reasons why so many of those songs don’t last is because to a child, they often don’t make sense. Some of them do, but especially the hymns, even adults don’t quite fully understand certain references. And in older children’s songs there are references that children and even the parents don’t get.
There was one called, “Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning.” And the kids never really questioned the meaning of that song, but here I was as an adult thinking, “what is this song saying? What is my lamp and what am I burning for? I mean, I know it has to have some kind of religious meaning, but what is it? The song never explains it.”
And as the kids got older, I’ve kind of forgotten about it. Then, I came across it this week. It was another week where I didn’t know what I was going to preach on until two days ago and came across the story of the ten virgins.
If you have your Bible, please turn with me to Matthew 25, and we’ll read the first 13 verses together.
And as you’re turning there, I mentioned the song didn’t give an explanation, but it’s interesting that Jesus didn’t always give an explanation of his parables. The people often scratched their heads, and even Jesus’ disciples asked for an explanation sometimes. And Jesus seemed a bit perturbed at having to explain it to them, as if you could just hear him sigh and see him roll his eyes. But this is a tough one. What does it mean? Well, let’s take a look at what it says first.
Scripture: “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4 The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
6 “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
7 “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’
9 “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’
10 “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
11 “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’
12 “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’
13 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”
Central Truth: So what does this mean? Well, from the last verse, we can see that this references what Jesus was speaking about in the previous chapter. It’s kind of odd how some of the chapters of the Bible are separated. Sometimes they change in the middle of a thought, and we can see here that these beginning verses segue from the previous chapter where Jesus is telling his disciples about his return. Then he goes into this parable to illustrate what he just said.
In chapter 24, verse 36, Jesus says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
Then a few verses down, beginning at verse 42 Jesus says, “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
So the point is that Jesus wants us to keep watch, he wants us to understand the approximate timing of his coming. But with the parable of the ten virgins, there’s something more. And it’s said in verse 44 of chapter 24. “So you also must be ready.” What does it mean to be ready? Jesus goes on to use the illustration of having oil in our lamps.
Point 1: So now we go back to the question, what is the oil in our lamps supposed to represent? Afterall, Jesus never says. And what about these ten maidens, I mean that’s kind of weird, right? Well, before we get into that, let’s look at a couple of other things.
First, remember the audience Jesus was talking to. He never said it was right or wrong to have more than one wife, it was just a reference point that the audience could understand. There was polygamy in those days, it was part of the culture. The point was not to talk about that. The point was something different. And in Eastern tradition, the groom came for his wife or wives. It was a different ceremony than today.
Anyway, you’ll notice they were waiting for him. So they were expecting their bridegroom to come. They were expecting not only that he would come, but that of course he would take them to be his bride. But Jesus calls half of them foolish because they brought lamps but not oil for their lamps. Back then their lamps were like the lamps in Aladdin, and the wick for the lamp was in oil, which fueled whe wick and kept it burning. When I was a kid we had a table lamp like that. We also had a kerosene heater. So I can kind of picture this in my head.
Today, we carry flashlights. We may instead just carry our cellphones and use the light on our cellphones. These cellphones now are kind of like the electronic version of a boy scout knife, they’ve got everything. In either case, it would be like us today carrying a flashlight without putting batteries in it first, or bringing a cellphone with a dead battery. Not very smart.
So you could imagine someone who had done this saying, let me borrow some of your batteries so I can put it in my flashlight, or let me borrow your charger so I can charge my cell phone. But the others who were prepared said, sorry, I don’t have extra. You’ll have to go and buy them yourselves.
So expectation was not enough. Ray Stedman puts it this way, “Though this group is united in its expectation it is quite divided in the way it conducts its waiting. Five maidens have brought along extra oil, and five have not. This does not represent a division between good and bad, but, as Jesus says, between the wise and the foolish.”
So these maidens were believers. Perhaps not saved, though. You can be a believer and not be saved. You can believe in Jesus in your mind, but not have Jesus in your heart. And that’s where we learn about what the oil represents.
Point 2: Now, before we get into that, the maidens fell asleep because their wait was so long. Now, that’s just an indication that Jesus’ return would be a long time. Even the wise slept, and there was no reprimand from the groom, so there’s nothing about that part of the story other than his coming will be a long wait, so it’s okay to go about doing normal activities and living a natural life. We’re not to be on edge and our readiness doesn’t mean that we’re to halt life and sell all our possessions and live as minimalists because Jesus may come within our lifetime.
It means it’s okay to eat and sleep and be occupied with whatever life demands. I don’t think we have a problem with that, but it’s to indicate that our readiness isn’t about our preparation in our natural life, about having some kind of will that says “in case of rapture, I hereby donate anything left behind to The Salvation Army, and my pets to the local animal shelter” or whatever it might be. It’s about how we’ve prepared our lamps.
Going to verse 6, we read, “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ 7 “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’
9 “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’
10 “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.”
In the delay, the foolish maidens run out of oil. They didn’t have enough to begin with. They didn’t prepare for the long haul. They didn’t think it was necessary to refill until it was too late. And what happened? Well, they were at least wise enough to care about getting more. They were at least wise enough to have a sense of fear that if they didn’t have oil in their lamps when the groom came, he might dismiss them as his bride. There was something about this event where waiting and being present was not enough. They needed to have their lanterns lit or else the groom would not take them as his bride. They knew that, so they rushed to get some more.
Unfortunately, the groom came and did not wait for them. They missed their chance. They had good intentions, they tried. But they missed his coming. But that did not stop them. They tried again. They went to his home and knocked on the door, and the Lord of the manor said, “I do not know you.”
Wait a minute. They waited for him. Wouldn’t he have at least recognized them? Shouldn’t he have expected them? Shouldn’t he have said, “Oh, what took you so long? Come on in! I’ve been expecting you!” I mean, that’s how we would have expected the story to go. Better late than never, right? That’s how some churches preach the gospel now. Everyone is not just invited, but everyone gets to be part of the wedding banquet regardless of how much oil you have in your lamp, regardless of whether you’re ready for the Lord’s return or not.
But Jesus doesn’t say to them, “I’ve been expecting you,” instead he says, “I never knew you.” There’s a big difference. There’s a big difference between those who have some kind of knowledge of who Jesus is in their minds but don’t have Jesus in their hearts. Having some kind of knowledge of who someone is, is not enough for them to welcome you into their home, let alone have you marry them.
How many of you wanted to marry your celebrity crush when you were younger. Could you imagine just knocking on their door expecting them to invite you in? At best, they’d meet you at the door and sign an autograph. They don’t know you. And you don’t know them, either, other than what you’ve seen on TV or heard on the radio or read in an interview.
How many people think they know Jesus but all they know is that he’s some historical religious figure who taught about feeding the poor and being kind to everyone. A sort of male Mother Teresa. Some people would categorize Jesus as a political figure or a socialist.
I shared an article through Facebook on Labor Day, and I’m still getting likes and comments on it. It was rather eye opening, and you can find different Christian resources sharing it and writing articles based on it. According to a study conducted by LifeWay Research for Ligonier Ministries’s biannual State of Theology survey: 52 percent of Americans say they believe Jesus was a “good teacher, but he was not God,” according to the survey. Although the poll’s finding about the general population may not be shocking, Ligonier said it is surprising that nearly a third of evangelicals (30 percent) affirm the statement and believe Jesus was a good teacher and nothing more…Meanwhile, 65 percent of evangelicals believe “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God” – a statement that [obviously] conflicts with the Bible.
The survey was based on interviews in March with 3,002 U.S. adults.
Point 3: So it isn’t having a knowledge or belief in Jesus or waiting for his return that is the key. And we assume that if we know him, he knows us. I mean, afterall, God is all-knowing, right? It’s something about this oil. It’s something about this oil that relates to Him knowing us. And we have to make sure that we’re prepared to have this oil when he returns, because he’ll pass us by if we’re the least bit late having it. And the least bit late is too late, and we need to be prepared because we don’t know when he’s returning.
Oil, in the Old Testament, is frequently used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Kings and priests were anointed with oil as a sign of their consecrated (and, supposedly, Spirit-filled) lives. Zechariah, the prophet, was shown a vision of a great golden lampstand with two olive trees standing beside it. The trees dripped oil into the bowls of the lampstand, and Zechariah was told: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). The oil symbolized the Spirit of God by which the light of testimony could be maintained in the hour of darkness (Ray Stedman).
When I was at Elim, studying for the ministry, I remember reading about an illustration of what it means to be anointed with the Holy Spirit, and how that works in our lives. And I remember it because I can relate to it because we have a couple of ponies at home and our kids have been in Pony Club. And to keep their saddles soft and pliable, clean and from drying out and cracking and lasting decades, even centuries, they use oil to preserve it. I’m sure somewhere you can find leather in a museum that is from the Middle Ages or even at the time of Jesus and The Roman Empire.
Just for fun, I Googled “what is the oldest piece of leather in the world” and I came up with a 5,500-year-old leather shoe that was found in 2008 in excellent condition in the Areni-1 cave located in Armenia. It is a one-piece leather-hide shoe. According to the BBC, the well preserved cow-hide shoe predates Stonehenge by 400 years and the Pyramids of Giza [the famous pyramids in Egypt] by 1,000 years.
And if you are a cowboy and rode horses, you’d have to oil your saddle and other leathery components like the reigns and so on. Your leather boots, your holster, all of that. A cowboy’s gotta keep those things oiled. Of course his gun.
Not only do you use oils to help preserve leather, but people who are furniture restorers use oils to help restore the wood and make it like new. People who live in arid places like Arizona and New Mexico have to continually use oils to preserve their dining room tables and other wooden furniture from cracking due to the dryness. The oils seep into the cracks and cover over and in and through the wood, preserving it, keeping it from cracking any more.
It is the same with the Holy Spirit that dwells in us and through us to preserve us, to fill in the cracks and to refinish us and make us new and preserve us. We sometimes see someone who is a preacher or musician or writer and we hear someone say, “so and so sure is anointed.” And it means that they have that kind of outpouring of the Holy Spirit in their lives. That extra something where God has poured himself through that person and it’s evident in their ministry.
I came across a devotional about oil being used to anoint sheep. In the famous Psalm 23, David said, “You anoint my head with oil.”
What does that mean? What was he referring to? If you remember Psalm 23 it begins with “The Lord is my shepherd.”
Here’s what the devotional said: The shepherd anoints his sheep with oil for two purposes. First, to repel insects. If allowed to deposit their eggs into the soft membrane of a sheep’s nose they can drive the sheep insane; the ewes stop giving milk and the lambs stop growing. So the shepherd anoints his sheep with an oil-like repellent that keeps the enemy at bay and the flock at peace. Second, to heal wounds. Most wounds result from living with the flock. So the shepherd regularly inspects his sheep because he doesn’t want today’s wound to become tomorrow’s infection.
Whether circumstances are driving you crazy, or you have just been wounded as a result of living with the flock, always go to the Shepherd. Before you go to anybody else, go to God because ‘He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds’ (Psalm 147:3 NIV). Then, bow before Him.
In order to be anointed the sheep must lower their heads and let the shepherd apply the oil. Humble yourself, call on the Lord. ‘God will always give what is right to his people who cry to him, he will not be slow to answer them’ (Luke 18:7 NCV). David writes, ‘I shall be anointed with fresh oil’ (Psalm 92:10). Yesterday’s oil is quickly contaminated by the dirt and grime of the journey, so you must go to God daily and ask Him to empower you with His Spirit. A sheep doesn’t understand how the oil works, but it doesn’t have to. It is enough to know that something happens in the presence of its shepherd that happens nowhere else.
Not only is yesterday’s oil contaminated, but like the oil in the lamps of the maidens, we’ll run out if we’re not careful. If we run out, then how can we be anointed again? How many of you have felt at times filled with God’s Spirit, and sort of a spiritual dryness. It’s not that we aren’t saved, it’s just that our lamps are not full.
You see, we can share our testimony and pray for one another and demonstrate God’s love for one another, but how can we share The Holy Spirit? People have to receive The Holy Spirit. Like the wise maidens, it just isn’t something they could share. People have to be filled with The Holy Spirit for themselves.
And it’s easy to go about daily life, as we saw in this passage, and for people to have had a little bit of the Holy Spirit to start with, but eventually be drained. Whether it’s worldliness or whatever it might be, they’re expecting Jesus to know them and take them when in fact, they know not God, and God does not know them.
Having a familiarity with this Jesus as nothing more than an historical figure and thinking he’s one thing that you may have vaguely heard of before isn’t enough. Believing he’s God or the Son of God isn’t enough. Even if your belief is accurate. Going to church isn’t enough. Your lamp must have oil in it. Even if it’s not full, your lamp has to have oil.
I mentioned Ray Stedman a few minutes ago. Here’s a story he told of someone whose life had been filled with the oil of the Holy Spirit.
I called on a man in the hospital once, a Christian of many years’ standing. I found him unable to talk, sitting up in bed, his body wasted away to a skeleton. He was unable to move a muscle, even to lift his arms or turn his head. The best he could do in the way of talking was to utter a few guttural sounds. I asked him if he would like me to read the Scripture to him and he nodded his head. As I read, I watched his eyes. As the marvelous words from passages in Isaiah began to sink into his ears, there came a flame into his eyes, a light such as never shone on land or sea. Before we finished, I could see in that emaciated body the glory of a flame burning, unquenchable, inexhaustible, fed by the oil of the Spirit, a flame that could never be put out.
Conclusion: You see, The Lord was about to come for that man in the hospital bed. It wasn’t just at the Return of Christ, it’s any time the Lord is to come for us. We must be ready. We must have oil in our lamp. We don’t know the day or the hour of the Lord’s return. We don’t know the day or the hour of our passing.
When he comes for us, we need to have oil in our lamp. We need to be ready. The door is shut, both to the unbeliever who never tried to get in and to the foolish person who tried to live on their own without the Holy Spirit and never took God seriously.
It’s time to be refreshed and renewed. And we need to make a commitment to be renewed often. A couple of weeks ago, I spoke about what it means to worship, and this sermon goes along with that. In order to be renewed, we have to set ourselves aside and be filled with God’s Holy Spirit, not the emptiness of what the world has to offer. I know that what the world has is enticing. And it’s right in front of our faces all of the time.
I was watching a couple of episodes of a new show on Netflix, and I told Diana, “hey, this is a great show, I think you’ll like it.” It’s not often that the two of us can find a show that we can watch together. If we do, it’s usually a rerun of something 40 or 50 or 60 years old. But this is brand new. So I went back to episode 1 and we watched it together. You know, the second time around I noticed just how much swearing was in it, and how crude it was. I didn’t notice that the first time I watched it. Why? We get used to the world around us, don’t we?
God tells us we need to be renewed. We need the renewing of our minds. We get dry and cracked like leather or wood. We need a fresh coating of that oil, and we need the shepherd to anoint that oil over our heads.
Let’s take a moment today to do just that.
Prayer: Dear Lord, we come before you today to ask you to refresh us and renew us. To anoint our heads with the oil of your Holy Spirit. To pour not just over our heads, Lord, but to pour in us and through us. To fill up those cracks that have been made through spiritual dryness. To restore us and refresh us and to make us like new. To keep us and preserve us and to protect us.
Lord, I pray that you would fill our lamps with oil. Lord, we wait for you. We are eager for you to come and to take us to be with you. You call your Church your Bride. And Lord, I know that everyone here is a member of your Church, a member of your Bride. And Lord, I just ask that you would fill our lamps with oil as we wait for you to come. May our lanterns be lit for your arrival to take us home. In Jesus name, amen.