The Parables of the Lamp & the Measure | Mark 4:21-25

And he said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand? For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

Mark 4:21-25 ESV

I am sure that as Jacob wrestled with God all throughout the night, he reflected upon how his whole life was a near-constant wrestling match. Before night had fallen, the patriarch had sent his wives, children, servants, and flocks across the river to prepare for meeting Esau, but Jacob would stay on the other side, probably to be alone in prayer. After all, he was deathly afraid of his twin brother, who was coming to meet him with four hundred men. You see, Jacob and Esau had not parted on good terms.

Two decades before, Jacob had cheated Esau twice. First, Esau had returned from hunting one day and was famished. He came to Jacob for a bowl of the lentil stew that he had made, but Jacob offered him a trade: Esau’s birthright as the eldest twin for a bowl of Jacob’s lentil stew. Esau justified accepting the ridiculous offer by asking what good a birthright was if he was dead. The truth was that Esau clearly didn’t treasure the blessed promises of God that God had given to his grandfather Abraham, to his father Isaac, and would one day give to him. Jacob, however, did, and he was willing to do whatever it took to receive that divine blessing. Jacob saw his second opportunity to do so whenever Isaac told Esau to hunt and cook some meat for him and then receive his deathbed blessing. With his mother’s counsel and help, Jacob pretended to be Esau and stole away his brother’s blessing. All of this enraged Esau to the point of plotting murder, so Jacob fled to his mother’s homeland, where he had lived for the last twenty years. Now after struggling those twenty years against his father-in-law, Jacob was being forced to meet Esau again, and he was coming with a small army.

Jacob’s prayer time was abruptly interrupted by a mysterious man who attacked Jacob. The longer they fought into the night, the more Jacob likely suspected that this was no ordinary man. At last, whenever it seemed as though Jacob was finally pinning the man down, the stranger gave a light touch to Jacob’s thigh and his hip dislodged from its joint. Despite the pain, Jacob did not loosen his grip.

Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. (Genesis 32:26-29)

Jacob called the place of his wrestling match Peniel, which means the face of God, for he knew that he seen God face to face. That night was Jacob’s life in miniature. He was wrestling with God, refusing to let go until he had received the blessing. Esau, on the other hand, happily embraced his wandering brother, and he likely only brought the four hundred men as an opportunity to display how wealthy and powerful he had become without the birthright or the blessing. He lost his place in the lineage of Christ out of carelessness and negligence, whereas Jacob grasped at that blessing with all his might.

If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.


Harmonization is easily one of the most difficult aspects of studying one or more of the Gospels. The goal of recognizing the harmony among the Gospels is a worthy and even necessary endeavor, especially given the attempts of secular and liberal textual critics to disembowel Scripture’s fourfold testament of the King. Yet harmonization can go too far. Often a study of one of the Gospels can instead become a general study of the life of Christ by harmonizing the four Gospels through the lens of the one being studied.[1] Mark’s Gospel is particularly prone to this because of its swift pace and the fact that almost all of its contents are also found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. I have purposefully tried to avoid such a study because I believe that Mark’s Gospel deserves to be seen in its own light, rather than just being treated as though it were a condensed version of Matthew and Luke.

This issue comes into particular focus as we prepare to study these five verses before us. Nearly each phrase of our text is found almost identically in both Matthew and Luke; however, neither has them all compiled together as they are here in Mark. For example, verse 22 is found in Matthew 10:26 and Luke 12:2, yet Matthew’s context is coming persecution and Luke’s is religious hypocrisy. One commentator notes this further and makes a puzzling conclusion:

In Mark these verses come one after another in immediate succession. But verse 21 is repeated in Matthew 5:15; verse 22 is repeated in Matthew 10:26; verse 24 is repeated in Matthew 7:2; and verse 25 is repeated in Matthew 13:12 and also in Matthew 25:29. The four consecutive verses in Mark are scattered all over Matthew. One practical thing emerges from our study. We must not try to find any connection between them. Clearly they are quite disconnected and we must take them one by one.[2]

That is a perfect example of allowing one Gospel to be read through the lens of another Gospel, instead of reading them both as individual but complementary portraits of Christ. Barclay goes on attempting to explain how these “orphaned” sayings of Jesus came to be collected together by Mark. Yet there is no reason why Jesus could not have used these statements individually in various teachings (as Matthew shows) while also using them all together as a single teaching (as Mark shows). We should, of course, remember that since Jesus was an itinerant teacher, He would have both delivered the same teachings in different locations and used particular wordings in different contexts as He preached. All of that is to say: Mark has uniquely recorded this teaching of Jesus, where phrases that are also scattered throughout Matthew and Luke are presented together, and they deserve to be studied as such.


In the first of the two parables that we are presently studying, Jesus uses a lamp as the object of comparison and illustration: Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand?

I suppose that the imagery is worth explaining a bit. Lamps in Jesus’ day were typically clay bowls filled with oil and with a floating wick that was lit. At night, these lamps were the only source of light for an entire room. Obviously to put such a lamp under a basket or a bed, rather than on a stand where it can most illuminate, is contrary to the very purpose of lighting the lamp. Of course, to place an open flame, no matter how small, under a basket or a bed is also a danger.

R. C. Sproul, however, notes that he believes that calling it a lamp is an error of translation. In the similar passages where Matthew and Luke speak of a lamp, they both do so using an indefinite article (a lamp); however, he argues that this verse in Mark should be translated using a definite article, meaning that it should read the lamp. He continues to explain why this is important to understand:

Without the definite article, we miss the significance of what Jesus said here. He was not talking about any lamp. He was talking about the lamp. What is that lamp? More properly we should ask, who is that lamp? In biblical categories, God Himself (and particularly His law) is referred to as the lamp. But Jesus is speaking here about the light that has come into the world with the breakthrough of the kingdom of God, and the lamp is Jesus Himself. He is saying: “I did not come here to be concealed forever. I came here as a lamp that is to be set on a lampstand, so that the light that I bring may burst forth and manifest itself clearly to all who dwell in darkness. I did not come to be covered with a basket or hidden under a bed. I came to shine forth.”[3]

This is important because we are likely to be more familiar with Matthew’s version of this statement that occurs within the Sermon on the Mount and is preceded by Jesus saying, “you are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14-15). Thus, in that context, we are called to consider whether we are proudly displaying the light of the gospel or attempting to conceal it. Here in Mark, however, Jesus is using the lamp as a metaphor for Himself and His own revealing of the gospel of the kingdom. Indeed, this also fits with the two other seed parables to come in this chapter, which each reveal the kingdom as a force of God that cannot be stopped.

Consider verse 22 in this light, especially since the word for sets it up as a further explanation of the previous verse: For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. The secrecy over Jesus’ identity as the Christ is a major theme of Mark’s Gospel. So far, only the demons have a clear vision that He is the Son of God, and Jesus immediately orders them to be silent as soon as they declare it aloud. To those whom He has healed, He has forbidden them to speak of Him. Even as He teaches the crowds in parables, He is concealing the kingdom as much as revealing its secret.

However, Jesus is telling us that that would not always be the case. Although the King had come in secrecy, His light could not remain hidden for long. Indeed, as the crowds thronging around Jesus only grow larger, we see that Jesus cannot be hide in secrecy. Yet Jesus’ eyes were fixed upon the day when the purpose of His coming to earth would be clearly seen by all, when He would be “lifted up from the earth” like a lamp set upon a candlestick (John 12:32). Tony Reinke describes what the crowds on that day would have seen:

A man mocked, scorned, beaten, bloodied, and raised up on a tree. But they also saw creation shudder. The earth winced. The temple curtain split top to bottom. The noonday sun was eclipsed for three hours. Tombs broke open. The dead bodies of many Christians were raised to life.

The death of Jesus Christ was not just another crucifixion spectacle; it was the pinnacle of all crucifixion spectacles. For the Romans, “every cross was a mocking throne for rebels,” but according to Scripture, the cross of Christ “was a parodic coronation and enthronement.” The cross of Christ was the greatest spectacle in cosmic history for what it ironically subverted. There on the hill of Calvary, Christ “disarmed the powers and authorities,” and in his victory, “he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col. 2:15 NIV).[4]

By His death, Christ’s light not only blazed before the unperceiving eyes of men, but it also out scorched the very fires of hell. He is, at once, the light of the world and an all-consuming fire, melting and warming the hearts of those with eyes to see His fiery beauty while to all others He is the very wrath of God.

Yet, as you may have noticed, not everyone has seen the light of Christ (whether as salvation or judgment). Indeed, His light is still being revealed, still further illuminating the world, until His return. On that day, He will come with the clouds just as the Son of Man in Daniel’s vision, “and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen” (Revelation 1:7). Then, at last, every knee will bow “and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:11).

Back two thousand years ago in Galilee, the sick and demon-possessed who clamored to touch Him did not perceive His true radiance. Neither yet did His chosen and beloved disciples who sat beside Him in the boat. His glory was for a while concealed, but it would not always be so. Indeed, it could not always be so. This lamp would ignite the basket or bed sooner than be snuffed out. But all would come in due time.


The second parable is purposefully related to the first. We might rightly call it the Parable of the Measure, since the essence of it is: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. The King James Version perhaps translates the basket in verse 21 best by rendering it bushel. A bushel might rightly be called a basket, but it is specifically a basket used for measurements. The Greek word is the same way; it suggests a measuring basket. Now, of course, Jesus turns His imagery to measures themselves. If you measure well, you will be measured well. If you measure using false, weighted scales, you will be measured in judgment. As Hendriksen notes,

If the one who does the measuring is kind, he will judge favorably, will take delight in giving credit where credit is due, in bestowing favors (see Luke 6:38). On the other hand, if he is of the opposite disposition, he will easily fall into the habit of judging severely, unkindly (see Matt. 7:1-5; especially verse 2). Whatever it be, the measure he gives will be the measure that he gets.[5]

Jesus further explains, as He did with the Parable of the Lamp, saying, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”  This principle is similar to Newton’s First Law of Motion that an object in motion will stay in motion. The one who has will only get more, while the one who lacks will be stripped of what little he does have. If this sounds like a rather shocking statement. We might better receive it in the form of another parable, which essentially presents the same message:

For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here, I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Matthew 25:14–30

The difference between Mark’s two parables can perhaps be most easily seen in the summons to hear that concludes the Parable of the Lamp but prefaces the Parable of the Measure. In the Parable of the Lamp, Jesus indicated that His light will be inevitably revealed, regardless of who perceives it or not. Thus, saying if anyone has ears to hear, let him hear fits the parable. The light of Christ will one day be seen by all, even though not all will perceive it. His Word will be heard by every ear, but not all will truly hear Him. Indeed, as the Parable of the Measure shows, those who do see and hear well will only continue to perceive and understand more clearly, while those who see but do not perceive and hear but do not understand will have even what they do understand taken from them. Therefore, Christ rightly calls us to pay attention to what you hear.[6] We are not guaranteed to understand Him when tomorrow comes, so we must listen well today.

We see this at work on a large scale within denominations today. Much of the so-called mainline denominations (such as the Episcopal Church, United Methodist Church, American Baptist Churches, and Evangelical Lutheran Church) have almost entirely abandoned the teachings of Scripture and the gospel of Jesus Christ, even though they continue to read Scripture and confess the creeds each Sunday. Of course, they are only indicative our culture as a whole. While Christianity once used to be automatically assumed, now it largely denied and repudiated. Indeed, the faltering came because of the assumption. Presuming Christianity, ears became dull, and eyes became cloudy. Collectively, we did not pay attention to what we heard, and now what we had is being taken away. Of course, God will always preserve a remnant of His people, and He delights in working mightily through things that are small and weak. But even so, we should take warning personally from what has been occurring collectively. If we are not careful and diligent to grow in our hearing of the gospel, we will not grow in grace and perhaps, eventually, become dull to Christ’s beauty entirely. It takes paying attention, being diligent. Ryle exhorts,

The man who makes rapid progress in spiritual attainments,–who grows visibly in grace, and knowledge, and strength, and usefulness,–will always be found to be a diligent man. He leaves no stone unturned to promote his soul’s well-doing. He is diligent over his Bible, diligent in his private devotions, diligent as a hearer of sermons, diligent in his attendance at the Lord’s table. And he reaps according as he sows. Just as the muscles of the body are strengthened by regular exercise, so are the graces of the soul increased by diligence in using them.[7]

Pay attention to what you hear. Are you doing that? Are you diligently turning your ear to the words of life? Or are you more diligent in hearing the daily news than you are of daily gazing upon Scripture? Are you more devoted to your favorite television show than to the weekly proclamation among the body of Christ? With the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. Our growth in Christ is in proportion to our diligent pursuit of Him.

You may be wondering what Jacob and Esau have to do with this text. Indeed, at first glance, their lives seem to be in direct contradiction to verse 25. Jacob did not have the birthright or the blessing, yet it was given to him. Esau had both the birthright and the blessing, yet they were taken away. However, upon closer inspection, we realize that Jacob had something fundamental that Esau lacked. Although he did not possess the birthright or blessing, Jacob had eyes to see and ears to hear the wonders of what God has promised to his father and grandfather. Esau, however, did not understand nor perceive their worth. Therefore, Esau lost his right to be in the lineage of Christ because of his carelessness. He lacked understanding, and what he had was taken away. But Jacob knew the value of God’s promise to Abraham and to Isaac, and he wanted in. He would wrestle all night and all his life to be a part of how God was going to restore the world. His ears heard well, and more was given to him.

Like Esau, carelessness and negligence will cause us to lose whatever portion of grace we once had; whereas, like Jacob, diligence and determination to have the blessing of Christ will be rewarded with knowing Him evermore. His marvelous light continues to shine brighter and brighter; let us fix our eyes and our ears upon Him.

[1] Of course, attempting a study over the life of Christ from the four Gospels together is a worthy endeavor. I am only warning about studies over individual Gospels that become such a generalized study.  

[2] William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, 98.

[3] R. C. Sproul, Mark: An Expositional Commentary, 72.

[4] Tony Reinke, Competing Spectacles: Treasuring Christ in the Media Age, 78-79.

[5] William Hendriksen, Mark, 163.

[6] There is a noticeable tension between the two parts of this complex of sayings. The ‘optimism’ of vv. 21–22, that all that is now secret will in due time be revealed, is balanced by the ‘realism’ of vv. 24b–25, that there will still be those who fail to benefit from divine revelation. – T. R. France, Mark, 212.

[7] J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Mark, 56.


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