Ephesians 4 makes it abundantly clear that every born again church member is expected by Christ to make meaningful contributions to the work of ministry in building up the local church. The leaders of the congregation are to equip the church members to do works of service, with a view to the edification of the local church. In a word, the congregation is to contribute towards corporate Christlikeness (Ephesians 4:11-16).
Now, this concept was not a new revelation to God’s new covenant people. Rather the old covenant also revealed that the congregation was expected to contribute to the work of ministry. One such example is Leviticus 24:1-9. In this passage, the congregation is instructed to contribute oil for the lampstand and bread for the sanctuary table. By doing so, they were helping the priests to carry out their work of ministry, with the result that the entire congregation could be spiritually benefited. The priests helped the people, who in turn helped the priests to help them!
This passage has much to teach us concerning the need and the responsibility of each Christian to contribute to the Christ-centred growth of the local church. May God use this Word to motivate us to corporate Christlike growth through a similar commitment to congregational contributions.
Many view Leviticus 24 as a strange detour from what has preceded it. As we have recently seen, after the Lord addressed the issues of prescribed conduct of the priests He then revealed the various feasts of the Lord and His prescriptions to the people of how they were to be observed. But then, in a kind of right angle turn, we are confronted with something that seems out of sync, as the Lord prescribed how the people were to supply oil for the lampstand (menorah) and bread for the table. Then to further confuse the plot, we have the account of a man who blasphemed the name of the Lord, who was subsequently executed. What is the connection? Is there one? I believe there is.
First, there is a contextual and logical reason. The oil and the bread supplied by the people could only happen once the harvest had been brought in. And the feasts, of course, were connected with harvest—both of wheat and of olives. So there is a contextual and logical connection.
Second, there is a theological reason for this account appearing here. With reference to what follows, the emphasis concerning the lampstand and the bread is upon their sacredness. Blasphemy is a trampling on the sacred, and so we see the theological connections between vv. 1-9 and vv. 10-23. God willing, we will explore that in our next study.
Third, there is a historical reason for this account being recorded where it is. Leviticus is a narrative, and therefore these events in chapter 24 are a historical record. In other words, even though the people had just been informed of God’s goodness to them (memorialised in the feasts) and of God’s holy provision for them (menorah and bread), nevertheless there were always those who paid no heed to this and thus lived in defiant irreverence to God. We should be disturbed, but not surprised, by this.
Fourth, and perhaps most significantly, there is a practical reason for these words to be placed at this point in the narrative. This reason undergirds all of the above. To see this, we need to once again understand the context of this passage: the recent revelation of the feasts.
As we have seen, these God-ordained holydays were a big deal for the nation—rightfully and reverently so. The people, no doubt, looked forward to such times (for the most part), both because of the spiritual benefit and also because of the social opportunities to reconnect with one another. No doubt, the days of rest from regular labours would have been attractive to many of them as well. But the blessedness of these special days could also become a potential stumblingblock. How so? Because, as we can all relate, the spectacular is a lot more appealing than the routine. Currid observes this reality when he notes that one major reason for this account at this point was to perhaps “remind the Hebrews not to forget these daily and weekly activities in the light of the annual festivals just discussed. It would be easy to overlook that which is to be done every day while looking towards the great yearly celebrations.”1 Ross adds, “Making sure that the lamp was lit every day and that bread was brought every week stresses the day-in-day-out service of the holy place, for these activities might not have been so carefully attended during the year as they were during the great festivals.”2
Celebrating the harvest of wheat and olives, with all that that involved, was far more exciting than contributing olive oil and baking bread. And yet, quite literally, these yearly feasts made the daily duties possible, just as the faithful carrying out of the daily duties made the yearly feasts more meaningful. The people of God needed this exhortation to learn that unremarkable service, not only more remarkable feasts, is vital to the welfare of God’s people.
This is a lesson very much needed in our day. When I first came to South Africa, Ascension Day was celebrated as a public holiday. When the government removed this day as a public holiday, one woman who attended our church at that time called me and expressed her disappointment with the decision. It was downright wrong, she said, for the government to neglect the significance of this day. She asked if I would be willing to challenge our church to not send children to school on that day, and to stay home from work as a statement. While I appreciated her concern, I asked her where she had been the previous few Lord’s Days. You see, while she was concerned about the spectacular, her and her family were far less committed to the regular Lord’s Day worship of the church.
This study will focus on the first nine verses of chapter 24 under the theme of corporate contributions. We will be instructed about the value of body life; that is, each member doing his or her own work of ministry for the benefit of the whole. Each of us is to contribute our service for the welfare of the body—even when such contributions may seem unremarkable.
Oil for the Lamp
The opening verses detail the congregation’s responsibility to provide oil for the lamp in the tabernacle.
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: “Command the children of Israel that they bring to you pure oil of pressed olives for the light, to make the lamps burn continually. Outside the veil of the Testimony, in the tabernacle of meeting, Aaron shall be in charge of it from evening until morning before the LORD continually; it shall be a statute forever in your generations. He shall be in charge of the lamps on the pure gold lampstand before the LORD continually.
We must not miss the interesting observation as we begin our exposition that the Lord instructed the congregation is to supply essentials for the proper functioning of the tabernacle—and that for an area to which they were not given access. Nevertheless, even though they could not enter the tabernacle proper, without their contributions there would be no light, no bread of communion and hence no true and full worship. The experience of the presence of God would not occur if the congregation failed in their stewardship of service. And the same is true in our day.
Perhaps you are familiar with the old Sunday school song:
Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning,
Give me oil in my lamp, I pray;
Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning (burning, burning),
Keep me burning till the break of day.
I was not always sure of the point of that song, but in the light of Leviticus this song might be the personified cry of the lampstand, which was to burn from dusk until the break of day. This required oil for the lamp.
As the people encamped around the tabernacle, they could look towards the dwelling place of God and see that His lights were on. God was at home, and He who neither slumbers nor sleeps was watching over Israel.
An Important Repetition
Of course, we have come across this lampstand many times in previous studies.
In Exodus 25:31-40 its design is mentioned for the first time. There, we read that it was to be made of pure gold and it was to be of one piece.
It was to have seven shafts and, again, was to be a seamless unity flowing from the base. Each stem or branch of the menorah was cupped at the top, and it was in these cups that the oil and a wick were placed for the purpose of producing light for the otherwise darkened sanctuary—particularly at night. The design of this lampstand points us to the Tree of Life as well as to the Vine and Branches to which Jesus referred (John 15). The Lord is the source of all life and light.
This lampstand was very valuable, worth several million rands in today’s terms. It became an identifying mark of Israel, so much so that when Titus sacked Jerusalem he carried it back to Rome. In fact, I am told that you can see this menorah sculptured on the Arch of Titus in Rome.
Again, Exodus 27:20-21 records similar information to that found here concerning the care of the lampstand by the people and the priests. As part of the tabernacle furniture, it was obviously a very important item. It is mentioned several other times in Exodus in various descriptions of the tabernacle, and finally is referenced in 40:24-25, when it is actually lit for the first time.
Again, since the instructions have already been given, and since the lampstand has already been lit, its mention here again must be significant. What is the significance of the repetition? The Lord was emphasising to the people several truths:
- their stewardship of His gifts;
- their stewardship of service;
- division of spiritual labour in the congregation; and
- their personal responsibility to keep the lights burning / communion with God.
The oil required for this was to be pure, which would ensure that the lamps would burn without spluttering. There was to be no doubt that the lights would burn brightly through the night. As the people would look to the tabernacle they would see the constancy of the light, thus assuring them that all was well. God’s care for them was consistently faithful.
Verse 3 makes it clear that these lamps were to burn throughout the night, but apparently they did not burn during the day. First Samuel 3:3 seems to indicate that there was a time when the lamp of God went out in the tabernacle—that is, at daybreak. From the description of the tent covering, it would seem that little light could have entered through the multiple layers. But perhaps there would have been enough natural lighting through the sides during the day to illumine the tabernacle for the priests to carry out their duties.
However, when darkness came, the light was to shine. And the people were responsible for this. Though the sons of Aaron were ultimately responsible (vv. 1, 3b-4) the people were accountable to keep oil in the lamps. The congregation was in essence the Eskom of Israel: It was their responsibility to keep the lights on. And they were to fulfil this task continually—from generation to generation—until the True Light came into the world.
Think with me about a typical night. As the darkness crept in the priest would enter the tabernacle and would trim the wicks, fill the lamps with oil and then light them (probably from a flame he carried with him from the altar of burnt offering). As darkness advanced, so the light would oppose it and the sight must have been beautiful to behold.
As the flames cast their light, the golden threads in the curtaining around the sanctuary and in the ceiling would have glistened. The multicoloured veil would have shined forth spectacularly and the gold-covered pillars would have reflected a glorious light. The golden altar of incense would have glowed and the table of showbread would have highlighted the piles of bread that were perpetually on it. As the priest would see the cherubim illumined in the veil, he would be reminded that, though darkness had come, heaven nevertheless had come to earth. The lights were on at God’s house, and all was well.
As an Israelite looked out her tent door, she would be encouraged that all was well. She and her family could rest secure that night. God was present and (may I say it with much reverence?) was very aware of her and alert to her needs.
But we should also consider that an Israelite who had contributed his oil would perhaps also have a sense of satisfaction knowing that God was present and that he had had some part in it. The community could be at peace as they went to bed because he, as a covenanted member, had been faithful. He had done his part in the neighbourhood watch. By his contributions, the congregation was reminded of the presence and thus of the providential care of their God. I would think that, as the lights burnt brightly and without sputtering, the congregation would have been glad that they had given their best olive oil rather than keeping it all to themselves.
The Light of the World
I will make some other relevant applications later, but I would be remiss at this point if I failed to mention that the lampstand has a new covenant counterpart.
In John 8:12 and in 9:5 the Lord Jesus Christ declared, “I am the light of the world.” He alone is the one who brings spiritual light to a world immersed in spiritual darkness.
It has often been observed that the holy place or the sanctuary before the most holy place in the tabernacle symbolised the redeemed world, while the outer court represented the lost world and the most holy place symbolised heaven. That is why the ceiling and the veil pictured heaven in distinction to the rest of the world.
The world was designed by God to be His tabernacle. The Garden in Eden was God’s sanctuary and this was to be extended by the godly couple being fruitful, multiplying and filling the earth with offspring who would also be worshippers of the Creator. But the fall of Adam and Eve shattered that initial beginning of the kingdom. Spiritual darkness rushed in.
From the point when God redeemed them, the story was about paradise restored that would only become a reality through the promised Messiah (Genesis 3:15). With Him would come the new heavens and the new earth, and there would be no need of light, for He, the Lamb of God, would be its light (Revelation 21:22-23; 22:5).
All of old covenant history was preparation for this by symbols and shadows. The tabernacle was one such shadow. And in this tabernacle, God made a replica of the world as it was meant to be: the sanctuary of God where He dwells with His creation. The lampstand therefore symbolised, among other truths, the light provided by God. (After all, the gold from which it was made was put in the ground by God and the oil was provided by Him through the gift of olives.)
When Jesus declared that He is the light of the world it would have had much significance for the Jews. Or at least, it should have. Jesus was declaring that He had come to lighten up the world to be the sanctuary where God would meet with man. In other words, Jesus is the lampstand.
I said earlier that this lampstand pictured both the Tree of Life and the Vine with its branches. That is because Jesus is the tree who gives life, as indicted by His revelation of Himself as the Vine and those who abide in Him as the branches. But the Gospel of John was not the last word on this, for John also wrote in the book of Revelation that the church is the Lampstand that lights the world since Jesus’ ascension (see Revelation 1:12, 13, 20; 2:1, 4).
You are the Light of the World
The local church is tasked with the privileged responsibility to be “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14-16). And to the degree that we are filled with Spirit (oil often symbolises the Spirit in Scripture), to such a degree the lampstand will show the light of Christ in an otherwise dark world.
And so we can conclude from our study thus far that each of us shares in the congregational responsibility to contribute our Spirit-given gifts towards empowering us as a local church to shine the gospel far and near. And this means, practically, that we each must contribute our efforts towards an ever growing Christlikeness, which will enable our light to shine brighter and stronger to the glory of God in Christ. As Bonar observed many years ago, the individual church member must see their duty to send the light “as if you alone were responsible for the enlightening of the dark world. The candlestick was the only light; so is the Church. And let every member feel responsibility. . . . If one lighthouse on the seashore were obscured, how many ships might be lost in the consequence!”3
Simply the Best
I want to emphasise again that the oil for this lampstand was to be pure, which meant that it had to come from the best of the olive squeezing. This would ensure a fine and continual light at night. We should learn from this that we are called to give our best to the Lord. To the degree that we do so, to such a degree our light will shine brightly, confidently and continually as a local church. Church member, give the best that God has given to you! Do so with your time, with your talents and with your treasures.
Bread on the Table
In the latter part of our text, we read of the bread that was to be provided for the table.
And you shall take fine flour and bake twelve cakes with it. Two-tenths of an ephah shall be in each cake. You shall set them in two rows, six in a row, on the pure gold table before the LORD. And you shall put pure frankincense on each row, that it may be on the bread for a memorial, an offering made by fire to the LORD. Every Sabbath he shall set it in order before the LORD continually, being taken from the children of Israel by an everlasting covenant. And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place; for it is most holy to him from the offerings of the LORD made by fire, by a perpetual statute.
In this passage, we have the record of the second item for which the congregation was responsible: supply of the bread on the table.
As you entered the tabernacle from the east, directly before you was the altar of incense, in front of the veil before the holy of holies. To the left (south) was the menorah and opposite (north) was a medium sized table, covered in gold. It was on this table where the “showbread” was piled in two rows. According to the measurements (“two tenths of an ephah”) each loaf contained about four kilograms of flour. These were not delicate little scones, but very large portions of bread. Josephus says that they were piled in rows, which makes sense when you consider how large they were and how relatively small the table was. (This table measured about one metre long, half a metre wide and about 0.7 metres high.)
These piles of flat bread were placed in two rows of six loaves each. Presumably, they represented the twelve tribes of Israel. The term “showbread” was used to describe these because of the terminology of v. 6: “You shall set them . . . before the Lord.” The word “before” literally means “in the face of,” or, “in the presence of.” The term suggests that the people were always “in the presence” of the Lord. They were always “on show” before Him—not in the sense of a threat, but rather in the sense of God’s special care for them. In the words of Tidball, this was “bread that keeps the children of Israel before the face of God.”4 It reminded the priests, who would remind the people, that God remembered them. This in turn served to remind the people to remember Him!
The bread was to be regularly supplied each Sabbath, and the words in v. 8 place an emphasis on this. Currid notes, “In Hebrew [this] literally reads: ‘on the Sabbath, on the Sabbath.’ This iteration, or repetition, is a common Hebrew device denoting the regular performance of an action, and it places emphasis on the activity in question.”5 In other words, bread was essential for their relationship with God and for their worship of Him. Without the bread of life, worship was meaningless.
This was to be done, as with the oil for the lampstand, perpetually. The bread on the table was for the purpose of continually foreshadowing the day when Christ would come as the Bread of Life (John 6:33-51).
We further understand from the text that this bread was for the consumption by the priests. This was holy food for them. We don’t know how long this bread remained on the table before the priests ate it. Perhaps they ate it throughout the week. We do know that it was unleavened, so there was little danger of it becoming mouldy. The only restriction with reference to its consumption was that it had to be eaten in the holy place, and thus it appears that they could not take it home to share it with the family. It was holy.
Prayers and Providence
One more observation needs to be made about this bread, and that involves the requirement that “pure frankincense” was to be offered with it. It appears that this was not placed directly on the bread, but rather alongside the rows of bread. After all, the incense would probably have rendered the bread unpalatable if it was put directly on it.
Perhaps the purpose of this was to symbolise the prayers of God’s people rising to Him. If the bread symbolised God’s provision for His people, then the incense rising would symbolise the people’s gratitude to God for such mercies. They would have certainly concluded that God sustained His people with whom He so intimately communed.
As noted, this showbread clearly speaks of God’s gracious provision for His people and thus of His desire to have communion with them. But ultimately, of course, it points to the Lord Jesus Christ. In addition to His claim to be the light of the world, He also identified Himself as “the bread of life” (John 6:35-51). He is the true Bread from heaven, which gives life to the redeemed world. He is God’s provision for His redeemed people. And be encouraged by this thought: Just as the bread of presence was a reminder to God of His covenant with His people, so Christ, on the right hand of the Father, is a continual covenantal reminder of God’s reconciled relationship with those whom He has redeemed. That is one reason John could exclaim, “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1-2). Jesus is the bread of life, who both saves and sustains His people. He saves us from our sins (Matthew 1:21).
But note a further observation: As we saw earlier, the lampstands brightened the otherwise dark world of the sanctuary. But when the lamps were lit, the bread was very visible to those in that world at that time. It must have been a beautiful scene, especially to those who were hungry. After all, the bread was not merely for show but also for eating (v. 9)!
Likewise when the local church has oil in its lamp, then it so shines that it highlights the bread of life, which is otherwise hidden in a spiritually darkened world. Do you see the need revealed here for each of us to fulfil our responsibility to contribute what the Lord has provided for His sanctuary? Don’t ever minimise your contribution; it is very meaningful indeed!
Those whom God will save are hungry for the bread of life, but they need for us to show the way. So be equipped to do your work of ministry for the Lord.
Since we no longer live under the old covenant, we must ask, what possible relevance does this have for us? Note the following connections and applications.
First, the leadership was not tasked to do it all. If the Lord’s blessed presence was to be experienced by the covenantal community, then each had to do his or her part. In fact, it was probably a family affair.
Perhaps the head of the household would labour in the fields and in the orchards to produce the wheat and the olives. Then maybe the wife would grind the wheat for the bread, which would then be baked into bread. The children perhaps would prepare and press the olives for the pure oil. Perhaps they went to the tabernacle as a family to give the priests these contributions. If so, then as the light shining at night would give the family a joyful satisfaction that they had contributed to the wellbeing of the community, since all could now reflect on the presence of their glorious God.
The point for us to see is that every member is expected by God to contribute works of service for the mutual benefit of the faith community.
Second, though the people were responsible to contribute, the priests were ultimately responsible to see that the people did contribute.
As we have seen, this passage reveals that God expected His people to contribute to the service of the tabernacle. Their contributions were essential if the priests would fulfil their responsibility. We have also seen that, to the degree that they contributed as a congregation, to such a degree they themselves would benefit. But we should note that one of the responsibilities of the priesthood was to teach the people their responsibilities, which in turn would enable the priests to fulfil their own responsibilities. In other words, there was a very real symbiotic relationship between the priests and the people.
There must have been some system of teaching and accountability to make sure that the lights remained burning and the bread kept coming. And the same principle holds true in the new covenant church regarding pastors and the congregation. The sooner we appreciate this, the sooner our light will shine brighter and the bread will be distributed further.
Ephesians 4 underscores this principle. God gives to the local church leaders who are to equip the congregation to make meaningful contributions to keep the lights burning and the bread coming. This is so important for us to grasp. And by God’s grace this is not a new truth to BBC.
Thankfully BBC is a church that understands, for the most part, that the duty of its leaders is to equip the saints (church members) for the work of ministry. That is, the membership is called by God to do the ministry (works of service) in the church. The leaders are to encourage the congregation to labour to gather the wheat and the olives to offer their oil and bread to the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Just as Aaron and his sons were responsible to remind and to exhort the people to provide for the ministry of the tabernacle out of what God had provided to them, so God’s ministers today are to exhort and to equip the congregation to contribute what God has provided to each member (1 Corinthians 12:7, etc.).
But what does this equipping look like? The word translated “equipping” in Ephesians 4:12 was used in Greek to speak of repairing something. For example, in Matthew 4:21 we are told that James and John were “mending” their nets. If the nets were not mended, much potential catch could escape. Repairing their nets, then, enabled a larger catch.
Much the same is true when pastors equip saints for the ministry. Certainly pastors are to be fishers of men, but as they equip the church to do the same a far larger catch is possible.
The same word is translated “restore” in Galatians 6:1, where church members are exhorted to “restore” those who have sinned, which again would enable the church to minister and reach out more effectively.
But the Greek term was used not only of repairing and restoring, but also of resetting and reorienting. Specifically, it was used of resetting a bone, thereby enabling a healthier walk. One of my fellow elders is an orthopaedic surgeon by trade. He does not heal people, but resets bones which, by God’s design, heal themselves. It is important, however, that the bones be reset correctly so that, when they heal themselves, full function and thereby a healthier walk can be restored.
As elders equip the saints for the work of the ministry, the church is enabled to walk in a healthier way to the glory of God.
The net result of this is local church where every member is a minister to the glory of God.
Third, the contributions were to be continual not sporadic or seasonal.
Tidball captures this point well when he addresses the issue of what he calls “the importance of unremarkable service.”
The danger of much of today’s Christianity, with its concentration on major gatherings and celebrity speakers, is that it sets wrong aspirations before emerging Christian leaders. Some see the glamour and glitz and wants to have a prominent place in the celebration event or on the big platform before they are ready. They do not see, and they fail to grasp, the significance of serving God faithfully in the unremarkable, small and routine work that characterizes most service for God.6
In other words, the routine is just as important—and actually even more important—than the exceptional.
Our church has been privileged over the years to host some wonderful pastors and authors. We have been privileged to sit under the ministry of men such as Philip Ryken, John Blanchard, Gordon Keddie, Michael Horton, Kevin de Young and Mark Dever. Those are opportunities for which I am grateful, and I greatly respect these men and their ministries. They are well-known and have a far-reaching impact.
At the same time, however, the church is perhaps more frequently built and edified through the consistent, faithful ministry of countless unknown pastors, teachers and disciplers, who labour week in and week out in an unremarkable manner, producing light and providing bread to the glory of God.
Matthew Henry seems to have understood this well:
His ministers, in opening and alleging, in reasoning and persuading from the scriptures, tend and order this light; which, by the influences of his Spirit, illuminates the minds of men unto salvation. By this light we shall discern the spiritual food prepared for our souls, first, presented to the Father, then distributed to us; and we shall daily, but especially from Sabbath to Sabbath, feed thereon in our hearts with thanksgiving.7
Let me exhort you to a life of constancy in your pursuit of Christ and in your ministry to Him. What you do, even though it seems unspectacular, matters. Let me put it another way: What the equipped church member does for the edification of the local church matters—a whole lot.
Each of us is essential in the work of ministry, which results in the building up of the body. So get equipped and get involved.
Finally, we must be persuaded from Scripture (and there is every reason to be) that the Lord is present amongst His people and that He desires for others to experience this as well. As Ross points out, this passage reveals that “the laity support the work by their gifts and the leaders turn those gifts into fruitful ministry, ultimately showing people the way to God.”8 Vitally, this is what happens in the local church today, albeit with some differences. Let me explain.
In the age of the new covenant, every believer is a priest of God. Nevertheless, it is still true that when the congregation works together, it makes it a lot easier for the leadership to point the way to Christ. But at the same time, it makes it a lot easier for each obedient member of the congregation to do so. And the result is that “the devoted service of God’s people ensures the way of access to [God through Christ] is continually illuminated.”9
The challenge, however, comes when each of us selfishly chooses to withhold our contribution. When this occurs then the church can become sidetracked from her main duty: the Great Commission. So let’s get over ourselves and be committed to contributing what God has equipped us to contribute. When we do so, we will find ourselves too busy enjoying the benefits of the light and of the bread to have the time or the inclination to think of ourselves.
May the Lord bless us as a congregation with ears to hear so that our light will shine as we contribute what He asks for that others will see the beauty of the bread of life.
- John D. Currid, Study Commentary on Leviticus (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2004), 313. ↩
- Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 439. ↩
- Andrew Bonar, Leviticus: The Geneva Series of Commentaries (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1989), 431. ↩
- Derek Tidball, The Message of Leviticus: Free to Be Holy (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2005). 287. ↩
- Currid, Study Commentary on Leviticus, 314-15. ↩
- Tidball, The Message of Leviticus, 284. ↩
- Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, 3 vols. (Nashville: Royal Publishers, 1979), 3.1:277. ↩
- Ross, Holiness to the Lord, 441. ↩
- Ross, Holiness to the Lord, 440. ↩