"Thou shalt make a candlestick of pure gold."
Exodus Xxv. 31
The meaning of the golden lamp-stand, which was the third piece of furniture in the inner court of the tabernacle, is unmistakable. It represented the office of Israel, as destined to ray out the light of God into a dark world. It is referred to in Zachariah's vision of a golden lamp-stand fed with oil by two "anointed ones," and in our Lord's first words after the Beatitudes, when He described His disciples collectively as "the light of the world." It is significantly modified in the vision in the Apocalypse, where, instead of the lamp-stand with seven bowls, we have seven separate lights, with Jesus walking in the midst.
The general thought thus set forth is that the Church is Light. It is so in two ways. Our Lord laid emphasis on one of the two, when He bade us let our light so shine before men that, seeing our good works, they may glorify our Father in heaven We are to shine by righteous, Christ-like living, and in such a fashion that we may be overlooked, and He who helps us so to live may be seen and praised. Did any eye ever see a sunbeam? We can see gross, artificial light, but not these pure rays. They are themselves unseen, but they show everything else and the sun from which they stream. So we should shine, unostentatious yet conspicuous, drawing and desiring neither notice nor praise, but leading feeble eyes to see in us a tempered ray from the fountain itself of heavenly radiance, and to adore. The beam that is impelled by force sufficient to carry it over the abysses between sun and earth, yet falls so gently that an infant's eye is not hurt by its impact. It shines as lovingly on filth as on jewels that flash it back. It reveals everything but itself, and is silent as strong. "Let your light so shine before men."
But we are to shine by word as well as by deed, as Paul has taught by his modification of this image, when he tells us that we are to " appear as lights in the world, by holding forth the word of life," as the arm of a candelabrum does its lamp. Of course, the Apostle means by " the word of life" the Gospel which proclaims and brings true life to the world, by the promulgation of which word Christians discharge their function as light. Good deeds are more likely to reveal God to eyes that else would fail to see Him, to ears that else would fail to hear Him, when they are accompanied by words that tell of God. Our lives will be all the more light, if we speak the word which moulds and impels them. We are bound to explain how we come to be what we are, and our deeds will lack their full power unless they have the commentary of our words, while our words will be vain unless they have the endorsement of our lives. We have not only to live the Gospel, but to confess the Gospel by which we live. We fail to be Christ's witnesses unless, when occasion serves, we are ready to avow the principles which mould our lives, and unless we always mould them by the principles of Christ's revelation.
Another thought suggested by the golden lampstand is that of derived light. The priests lit its lamps, which then shone out welcome and good cheer over the dark desert. "He shall not quench the dimly burning wick," but fan and tend it into brightness. He alone is "the light of the world." All others are, as He said of His forerunner, " lamps kindled and [therefore] shining "; and every kindled lamp will be an extinguished lamp some day, and "for a season" only do men "rejoice in its light." But the uncreated, unkindled Light, which is Jesus Christ, shines by His own energy alone, and therefore shines on for ever.
But a lamp has not only to be kindled, it has also to be fed. If there is no oil in the reservoir when the lamp is lit, it burns for a time and then dies down, and the wick chars and smokes and smells foully. Pour in oil and the dying flame leaps up. In both the Old and New Testament oil is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, and is chosen to be so because of its manifold uses. It supples the joints, smoothes the skin, is nutritious and supports combustion. Similarly, the Divine Spirit softens wills and makes them flexible, nourishes the true life, and feeds the flame which is kindled within, and shines out in word and work. Unless we have a continual communication to us of that Spirit, though the Lord Himself touch the wick and make it flame, the flame will die down, and we shall have to wail, like the foolish five, " Our lamps are going out." These had no oil in their vessels, and if we have none in ours, our Christian lives will degenerate and become what so many lives of nominal Christians are to-day—a feeble smoky flicker, which is darkness rather than light. Why is there so little radiance of consecration and purity visible in many of us? Why does so much of the work and speech of the Church come to nothing? Because the "golden pipe" that should deliver the oil is stopped somehow, and the results are a charred wick and an evil smell.
The light of the lamps was clustered light. The seven were set on one stem and blended their rays into one beam. So with us: it is best when the individual is merged in the mass, and when we are less desirous of showing our own brilliance than of joining with many another twinkle to make one steadfast flame, like the one circle of light into which the jets from a hundred little openings in a burner melt. "Ye are the light of the world," said Jesus— not the lights. There must be individualism, there ought to be unity.
The altar of incense must stand in the midst, and on either side the table of Shewbread and the lampstand. Communion with God through the sacrifice for the world's sins must come first, and then our activities must be, on the God-ward side, offered to Him, and, on the man-ward, must shine before men. Unless we begin with the altar of incense, the bread on the table will be scant and mouldy, and the light in the lamp will be flickering and dim.
Having put our heart's confidence upon Christ, the sacrifice for our sins, we must then live lives of devotion and prayer, and there will follow, first, that all our activity will be consecrated and offered to God, as is expressed by the Shewbread; and second, that our lives shall stream out into a darkened world, as prophets of the sunshine and dispersers of the gloom. For if we have the lamp and have not the shewbread—that is to say, if we are trying to pose before men as Christians, and have not consecrated our life and its activities, in the depths of our spirit, to God, our light will not be a light from heaven, and we shall be hypocrites. And if, on the other hand, we are living in a region of communion with Him, for all our prayer and for all our enjoyment of high emotions and pure thoughts and blessed fellowship, and for all our talk about consecrating ourselves to God, unless the result of that inward experience is a beam of light into the world that everybody can see, our experience is woefully defective, and we may turn out to be hypocrites again the other way.
One golden candlestick with seven lamps represented the rigid external unity of the Jewish Church. But when we come to the New Testament, we see seven separate candlesticks, not all notched into one golden stem, but all one, because Jesus Christ was in the midst of them. The old notion of the unity of the Church, as depending upon all its members being mechanically gathered into a rigid form, is dead and done with, and the true unity goes far deeper, and consists simplyin the presenceof Jesus Christ in the midst. On the triumphal arch in the Forum of Rome, which commemorates the conquest of the Jews by Titus, is carved the seven-branched candlestick. Rome, and all that holds of Rome in the Christian Church, retains the rigid notion of Christian unity as depending on external connection and on uniformity, which the New Testament should have taught us to leave behind. The golden lamp-stand itself is supposed to be at the bottom of the Mediterranean. Would that the notions of Christian unity corresponding to it were there too!
But the seven candlesticks of the Apocalypse, what has become of them? They have been removed from their place. When a candlestick ceases to give light, the sooner it is taken away the better. There have been in the past Churches which have died down into darkness, and their place knows them no more. "If God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest He also spare not thee."