Question: "Why does Mark 4:21 reference a light under a basket?"

Answer: After Jesus was rejected by the Jewish religious leaders in Mark 3, He began to speak in parables. In Mark 4:21–23, He gives an object lesson: “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” (ESV).

The idea of hiding a light under a basket (or “a bushel,” KJV) makes for a fun children’s Sunday school song, but there is a profound meaning behind the illustration. Jesus explains in the following verse: “Whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open” (Mark 4:22). He then warns His listeners that those who have ears to hear should hear—they should listen carefully and heed what He is saying (Mark 4:23). Truth is not to be hidden. It is to be received and heeded.

Earlier, Jesus had told the parable of the sower, which presents several examples of truth being poorly received. The seed sown beside the road was snatched up and taken away (Mark 4:15). The seed sown on the rocky places was initially well-received but never took firm root (Mark 4:16). The seed sown among thorns took root initially but then was choked out by the thorns (Mark 4:18). Each of these examples is similar to hiding a light under a basket.

The “seed” in Jesus’ parable is the Word of God (Mark 4:14). The Word in some cases is snatched away by Satan (Mark 4:15). In other cases the Word does not take root, for the rocks of affliction and difficulty get in the way (Mark 4:16). In other cases the Word is received, but the worries of the world choke it out before it becomes fruitful (Mark 4:18). In each case, the Word is given to bear fruit, but sometimes it does not. Similarly, a lamp is meant to give light, but there are conditions that prevent the light from shining. How foolish it is to put a light under a basket, where no one can see it and the light cannot illuminate the room. The light should be exposed, allowing it to function as designed—to bring illumination.

Jesus’ illustration of hiding a light under a basket also shows that secrets will not stay secret and things hidden will not stay hidden. The light will eventually do its job. Elsewhere Jesus explains that He is the Light of the world, and anyone who follows Him will not walk in the darkness but have the light of life (John 8:12). He would not be a light under a basket; as long as He was on earth, He would be the Light of the world (John 9:5).

Jesus also calls His listeners the light of the world (Matthew 5:14). Like a city on a hill that cannot be hidden, Jesus’ followers will stand out. A light is not put under a basket but on a lampstand to give light to the whole house (Matthew 5:15). Jesus’ followers should let their light shine among men so that people would see their good works, done in heaven’s name, and glorify the Father (Matthew 5:16).

Light serves several purposes in the teaching of Jesus: to expose that which is in secret, to provide a contrast with the darkness, and to illuminate the darkness. In each of these purposes, those who would follow Jesus have a responsibility to let their light shine. Paul similarly challenges believers in Christ to show themselves blameless and innocent even in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom believers “shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15, ESV). Our light is not intended to be put under a basket but to illuminate the whole house.