Candles have been used in spiritual and religious contexts for thousands of years. In the Bible, candles are mentioned several times and have symbolic meanings related to light, wisdom, and sacrifice. For Christians today, candles continue to have spiritual significance in worship and prayer. In this comprehensive blog post, we will explore the various symbolic meanings and uses of candles in the Bible and for modern Christians.
Candles provide us with light and warmth against the darkness and cold. For this reason, they have long been imbued with spiritual symbolism across many religions and cultures. The flame of a candle evokes images of the struggle between light and darkness, good and evil. A lit candle signifies wisdom, illumination, and God’s presence. Extinguishing a candle represents death, loss, or the departure of the Holy Spirit.
The act of lighting candles has spiritual connotations as well. Candles lit during worship services or prayer represent offering ourselves to God and asking for His light to enter our lives. Lighting candles on behalf of others shows our care, concern and willingness to pray for them. In fact, some churches keep seven-day candles lit near the altar for members to light on behalf of loved ones. Clearly, the symbolic nature of candles resonates strongly with worshippers of God.
In this comprehensive blog post, we will explore the symbolism and uses of candles throughout the Bible and for modern Christians. The key topics covered include:
- Candles as symbols of light and God’s presence
- Use of the menorah candlestick in Judaism
- Jesus as the light of the world
- Candles representing spiritual enlightenment and wisdom
- The altar candle as a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice
- Lighting votive candles in prayer and worship
- Candle rituals and ceremonies
By understanding the rich biblical foundation for using candles in a spiritual context, Christians today can gain a deeper appreciation for their symbolic significance in worship services and prayer practices. The flickering flame of a candle continues to point us to Christ the Light, who illuminates our paths through the darkness of a fallen world.
Candles as Symbols of Light and God’s Presence
One of the most fundamental symbolic meanings of candles is light. In the Bible, light represents truth, wisdom, and God’s presence. We see this in Psalm 18:28, where David proclaims that God “turns my darkness into light.” (NKJV) The psalmist also declares, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:105 NKJV) Light enables us to see clearly and illuminates our way forward. As such, the light of a candle is a powerful representation of God’s wisdom, revelation, and presence in our lives.
We first see candles specifically mentioned in the book of Exodus, when God commands that a “perpetual lamp” fueled by olive oil be kept burning in the tabernacle.
You shall command the children of Israel that they bring you pure oil of pressed olives for the light, to cause the lamp to burn continually. (Exodus 27:20 NKJV)
This perpetual flame signified God’s constant presence with his people. The light emanating from the tabernacle served as a visible reminder of God’s glory, protection, and guidance.
Later in the Exodus account, we read of God appearing to Moses as a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush:
The Angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush. So he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed. (Exodus 3:2 NKJV)
Once again, the image of fire and light points to the active presence of God communicating directly with His people. The light illuminated the bush but did not destroy it, just as God’s glory fills believers with His Holy Spirit while preserving our humanity.
So right from the foundational Exodus narrative, candles and light are established as symbols of God revealing Himself, His wisdom, and His abiding presence to His people. The flickering light of a candle invites Christians to pause and reflect on God’s desire to make Himself known to us, guiding and protecting our paths.
The Menorah Candlestick in Judaism
Another key candle-related object in the Old Testament is the menorah, an elaborate golden candlestick with seven branches used in temple worship. God gave specific instructions for constructing the menorah:
You shall also make a lampstand of pure gold; the lampstand shall be of hammered work. Its shaft, its branches, its bowls, its ornamental knobs, and flowers shall be of one piece…It shall have six branches going out of its sides: three branches of the lampstand out of one side, and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side. (Exodus 25:31, 32 NKJV)
The high priest was commanded to keep the seven lamps of the menorah burning continuously from evening to morning whenever the tabernacle was set up. The menorah stood as a symbol of God’s covenant with Israel and His desire for them to be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). The light emanating from the menorah represented the spiritual illumination that comes only from the one true God.
When the first temple was built in Jerusalem, it similarly housed a golden menorah constructed exactly according to the pattern God had outlined to Moses. The menorah thus became central to temple worship, as a perpetual reminder of God’s presence with His people. In fact, the image of the menorah was even adopted as the official symbol of the state of Israel in modern times. Each time we see that familiar menorah silhouette, it evokes the Old Testament ceremonial use of candles to represent God’s eternal light and covenant faithfulness.
The seven-branched menorah spoke to spiritual completeness or perfection, as seven is considered a divine number in Scripture. The psalmist describes God’s words as “pure” and “refined seven times” (Psalms 12:6), once again conveying the idea of a complete spiritual illumination coming from the Lord. So the seven lamps of the golden menorah powerfully symbolized God’s pure, complete revelation to His people when it stood in the tabernacle.
For Christians today, the menorah remains a meaningful symbol of God’s desired relationship with His people, calling us to reflect His light as we grow in the wisdom and truth of His Word.
Jesus as the Light of the World
When we arrive at the New Testament, Jesus picks up on established candle imagery to make radical claims about His divine identity and purpose. Just as God’s presence was signified by the light in the tabernacle, Jesus proclaims, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” (John 8:12 NKJV)
Jesus’ public declaration here connects back to the Old Testament tabernacle candle representing God dwelling with His people. But whereas the tabernacle light was stationary and limited, Jesus claims to shine as a dynamic light available to all who follow Him. The book of John develops this theme of Jesus as “the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world.” (John 1:9)
By taking on the symbolic identity of light, Jesus equates Himself with the divine presence of God on earth to illuminate humankind. Just as natural light allows us to see and function in the physical realm, Christ as the spiritual light reveals truth and enables us to live in relationship with God.
In the well-known story of Jesus healing a blind man in John 9, we see further interplay between physical and spiritual light:
As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him…When He had said these things, He spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva; and He anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay. And He said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” …So he went and washed, and came back seeing. (John 9:1-3, 6-7 NKJV)
This miracle of giving physical sight to a blind man is a powerful metaphor for Jesus’ mission to bring spiritual illumination to all humanity through His light. Just as the man’s eyes were opened to see the natural world, Christ enables our spiritual eyes to be opened to the light of God’s truth and redemption.
So Jesus as the light of the world is a central New Testament image that builds upon the candle symbolism from the Old Testament. His light leads us out of darkness into the very presence and knowledge of God.
Candles Representing Spiritual Enlightenment and Wisdom
Throughout the Bible, the lit candle or lamp represents spiritual wisdom and enlightenment. One of the clearest examples is in the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah:
The people who walked in darkness Have seen a great light; Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, Upon them a light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2 NKJV)
Those living in darkness symbolize spiritual ignorance and blindness. The coming light of the Messiah (Jesus) would bring revelation, wisdom, and understanding to liberate people from darkness.
The book of Proverbs, with its focus on wisdom, utilizes light imagery:
For the commandment is a lamp, And the law a light; Reproofs of instruction are the way of life (Proverbs 6:23 NKJV)
God’s commandments, law, and scriptural instruction are compared to lamps and lights that provide direction and guidance for living righteously. Without the illumination of biblical truth, we would stumble aimlessly in moral darkness.
In Psalm 119, we find a lengthy prayer expressing love for God’s Word. The psalmist sings, “Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path” (v.105). Once again, Scripture is seen as the illuminating source that allows believers to walk and live according to God’s will.
When Jesus called His disciples to be the light of the world, this clearly entailed living out and teaching biblical wisdom:
You are the light of the world…Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14, 16 NKJV)
As Christians grow in spiritual maturity and knowledge of God’s truth, they shine brighter for Christ and reflect His illuminating wisdom to others still living in darkness.
So candles and light in Scripture point to the life-changing spiritual wisdom that comes from intimately knowing God and walking in His ways. The flame of a candle reminds us to diligently seek the Lord for greater enlightenment through prayerful study of His Word.
The Altar Candle as a Symbol of Christ’s Sacrifice
Another significant candle-related object is the altar candle used in religious ceremonies and worship spaces. In Christian practice, the altar candle situated on or near the Communion table carries special symbolic meaning related to Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf.
The flame of the altar candle represents Jesus as the Light of the World, come in human form to be the sacrifice for our sins. Just as the candle gives itself up to provide light, Jesus willingly gave His life to offer salvation to all who believe.
We see prophetic references to the Messiah’s sacrificial death using candle/light imagery in the Psalms:
My flesh and my heart fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For indeed, those who are far from You shall perish…But it is good for me to draw near to God; I have put my trust in the Lord GOD, That I may declare all Your works. (Psalm 73:26-28 NKJV)
Though the psalmist’s own life will inevitably burn out and perish, God remains eternally steadfast as an unending source of light.
The altar candle visually reminds Christians of Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice to deal with the problem of our perishability and draw near to God. It represents Christ giving Himself up wholly in order to bring eternal light and life to those who trust in Him.
Some churches extinguish or hide their altar candles during the somber Holy Week services commemorating Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. The absence of the altar candle flame powerfully symbolizes Christ taking on the darkness of death for us.
When the candles are triumphantly relit on Easter Sunday celebrating the resurrection, we tangibly experience the light and hope of new life that Jesus’ sacrifice enables!
So every time we see or use an altar candle, it should direct our hearts to reflect on what Jesus did for us on the cross. The striking imagery connects the sacrificial flame with Christ’s undying love and redemption.
Lighting Votive Candles in Prayer and Worship
Another familiar candle-related practice in churches is the lighting of votive candles by worshippers during times of prayer and contemplation. Votive comes from the Latin “votum” meaning “vow” or solemn pledge. By lighting a votive candle, we physically represent our prayers ascending to God like the flickering flame.
The candle symbolizes our deeply felt needs or intentions rising to heaven. It makes tangible our vow to set aside focused time being in God’s presence. When lit on behalf of others, a votive candle shows our commitment to intercede for their needs before God’s throne room. We pledge to be their enduring light of prayer support in a dark and hurting world.
The votive also represents our desire for God to send His light and illumination into the specific situations for which we are praying. We ask for His wisdom, guidance, provision, healing, comfort and perseverance to radiate into the lives of those overwhelmed by shadows of suffering or loss.
In some traditions, different colored votives are used to represent different types of prayers. Red symbolizes prayers regarding love or courage, blue represents healing, green represents prosperity, and so on. The colors add further symbolic dimensions to our appeals based on the specific needs being lifted before God’s mercy seat.
So the votive candle is a powerful medium for Christians to make their prayers tangible and visually connect with God’s eternal light during times of petition or intercession. As our flickering votive lifts up our longings, we are reminded of Christ’s constant presence with us even in our darkest moments of need.
Candle Rituals and Ceremonies
Given the rich Biblical symbolism of light, it is not surprising that candles feature prominently in many Christian ceremonies, sacraments, and special services. The lighting, sharing, or extinguishing of candles during ritual worship reinforces their powerful spiritual meanings and turns our eyes to reflect on God’s presence and light.
A candle-lighting ritual often marks the beginning of Christmas Eve services, as worshippers hold up candles representing Christ, the Light coming into the world. Some churches give candles to members during candlelight services on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, reminding us that Jesus is with each believer even through His crucifixion and burial. Lighting candles in walkways or windowsills is a meaningful part of Christmas Eve traditions in many Christian homes.
Candle lighting plays an important role in baptism ceremonies across several denominations. Each baptismal candidate may light a candle from the main Paschal candle, which symbolizes Christ’s victory over death. This illustrates that a believer’s new life is kindled by the light of Jesus through the sacrament. Some churches give baptism candles to newly baptized members to commemorate their spiritual illumination in Christ.
Many wedding ceremonies also incorporate candle lighting. The bride and groom may light a unity candle together to represent the joining of their lives and the light of Christ at the center of their new family. Parents may light family candles, showing how they pass on the light of Christian heritage to the new couple.
Clearly, the memorable imagery of candles igniting, uniting, or being shared makes them ideal for incorporating into rituals and ceremonies. The visible, tangible nature of candle lighting allows worshippers to physically participate in the spiritual truths and promises being represented.
In summary, candles and their light carry profound Biblical symbolism that still resonates for Christians today. From representing God’s presence to signifying Christ’s redemptive sacrifice, from illumination of spiritual truth to fuel for our prayers, candles and their flickering flames will continue to have powerful resonance for worship and prayer. Understanding and embraced the multifaceted symbolism of candles allows modern believers to connect more fully with the light of Him who is the same yesterday, today and forever. Our live candles represent His eternal light, beckoning continually into the warmth and radiance of Christ.
As we light the candles in our sanctuaries, homes, and hearts this Christmas season, may the changeless Light of Jesus shine ever brighter through us into the darkness of a hurting world. Let us reflect His illuminating wisdom, mercy, and grace to all those who have not yet seen the true Light. As we live our lives lit by Christ each day, we will fulfill the calling to be the light of the world as His faithful followers.
- Candles symbolize light, God’s presence, wisdom, revelation, and guidance
- Old Testament use of the tabernacle menorah and perpetual flame represented God dwelling with His people
- Jesus claimed identity as the Light of the World who brings spiritual illumination to all
- Candle lighting rituals make spiritual truths tangible for believers during worship
- The altar candle signifies Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross
- Lighting votive candles gives visible representation to lifting our prayers to God
- Giving and sharing lit candles represents imparting faith, heritage, and the light of Christ to others
- Christ’s light kindled in believers during baptism represents new life and identity in Him