Did you grow up singing This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine? This song fills my earliest musical memories, along with other classics like Jesus Loves Me. Written in the 1920s by Harry Dixon Loes, it’s been adapted several times over the years, but the basic verses call to mind Jesus’s words most commonly quoted from Matthew 5.
“You are the light of the world. A town built 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 others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (verses 14-16).
Trouble is, the passage and song are so familiar, we might overlook a truth hidden in plain sight.
People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within. ~Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Swiss-American psychiatrist
To best see the hidden gem, we need to switch books. And languages. Don’t worry! I won’t lose you. I’ll walk through this quickly and simply, only telling you what you most need to know.
The Gospel writers had a lot of material to pull from as they wrote their versions of Jesus’s story. Think about all they witnessed, what people they knew experienced, and the stories that were memorized and repeated! The apostle John says it this way at the end of his Gospel. Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written (John 21:25).
So it’s not surprising that the Gospels contain a mix of both the same and different stories. For this particular parable of light, Mark and Luke also mention it. But it’s Mark that makes a critical distinction.
Translating is a big deal.
Translating anything from one language to another is a big deal. A really big deal. Think about how much meaning we encase in some of the words and phrases we use today. And consider that one segment of our society looks at that exact same word or phrase somewhat differently.
Now think about how you would translate all of that depth into a word or phrase in a different language. And consider that what we read in our modern Bibles is about a different time and place and culture.
Yeah. Translating is a really big deal. So let’s offer those who work hard to bring us a Bible we can read some grace.
A quick but important note.
In the English language, we have two indefinite articles: A and AN. They are attached to non-specific nouns, like a cat or an orange. You have no idea which cat or orange I’m thinking of when I say those words, but it doesn’t matter. When we use indefinite articles, we use generic terms to get people into the same area of thought. In the example I used, I wanted you to think in general about any cat or any orange.
English has one definite article: THE. This word is tied to specific nouns. If I say, “the cat,” then I could be referring to one specific cat, or I could be talking about that one specific kind of animal. While another cat or animal might be similar, by using the definite article, I eliminate other possibilities.
One small choice in our modern translations.
In all three Gospels, translators chose to use an indefinite article when talking about the lamp. This is legitimate in both Matthew and Luke as they, in their original languages, picked indefinite articles when they wrote their books.
Mark, however, did not. Let’s read how the New International Version translates Mark 4:21-25.
He said to them, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear. Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”
In the original Greek, Mark not only wrote with the indefinite article THE, but he made LAMP the subject of his question. Pastor and Bible teacher R.C. Sproul says that a better translation of Jesus’s words in Mark 4:21 would be, “Does the lamp come in order to be put under a basket or under a bed?”
Remember, indefinite articles point to specific nouns. Mark wanted us to understand he referred to one specific lamp. Now that changes things a bit, doesn’t it?
The Lamp and the Light
When we look at Scripture, lamp and light take on a bigger meaning. I’ll mention two Scriptures here, but I encourage you to search for more.
An unknown person writing to God says in Psalm 119:105, Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.
The apostle John opens his Gospel about Jesus like this. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
We are told to let our light shine, and if it does, we won’t need to tell anybody it does. Lighthouse don’t fire cannons to call attention to their shining — they just shine. ~Dwight L Moody, American evangelist and publisher
Thinking of God’s Word as the literal lamp shining forth from us, as Jesus as the literal light that shines from within us, changes so much in Mark 4:21-25 for me. I want to keep going with you, digging into verses immediately following, but this is already a lot to absorb. I don’t want to overwhelm you.
But, consider this simple thought as you go through the rest of your week: Did Jesus come to live with you in order to be squelched under fear or shame or doubt?
Samuel Campos struggles when he first became a police officer. He wants to honor God, honor his family, and do well on the job, but sometimes these priorities seem to come in conflict. Until his father offers sage advice: “You don’t listen to Uncle or to any family or to even your mother and me. First, you are God’s. Only God’s.”
The Sacred Trust Series, starting with Seeking Isabel
She’s missing. No one knows why.
Seventeen-year-old Isabel Moreno fights with her grandfather about going to a friend’s house to study. The next morning, she’s gone, an honor roll student well-liked by everyone. No one knows of trouble at home or at school. Friends are upset, and the family is distraught. What happened?
Detective Samuel Campos is assigned to the case.
Every person he talks to seems sincere, but good kids don’t just disappear. As he struggles through the never-ending questions surrounding Isabel, God talks to him in a way he’s never experienced before. Or is his mind making up things to camouflage the disturbing lack of evidence?