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The Parable of the Ten Virgins, by Scott Sperling
1“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
6“At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
7“Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’
9“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’
10“But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
11“Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’
12“But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’
13“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”
In this section, Jesus tells another parable concerning His return. This is the third of a three parable set: “The first parable (24:42-44) warns of the unexpectedness of Messiah’s coming. The second (24:45-51) shows that more than passive watchfulness is required: there must be behavior acceptable to the master, the discharge of allotted responsibilities. This third parable (25:1-13) stresses the need for preparedness in the face of an unexpectedly long delay” [Carson, 512]. “Jesus continues to teach His followers the necessity of continual readiness as they await His coming again. From the emphasis He put on watchfulness He clearly regarded it as very important” [Morris, 619]. The expectant attitude of Christians (constantly expectant of Christ’s return) is a theme throughout the New Testament. In Hebrews, we are called “those who are waiting for Him” (Heb. 9:28). In Timothy, Paul speaks of the rewards for “all who have longed for His appearing” (II Tim. 4:8). In Thessalonians, Paul commends the Thessalonians for how they “wait for [God’s] Son from heaven” (I Thess. 1:10).
So here, Jesus tells a parable of how His disciples should be ever and always prepared for His return. He begins: “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep” (vs. 1–5). Though the exact customs concerning weddings at that time are somewhat sketchy to us (and certainly they evolved over time), we can glean enough from historical sources to set up the background for this parable. D. A. Carson summarizes: “Normally the bridegroom with some close friends left his home to go to the bride’s home, where there were various ceremonies, followed by a procession through the streets—after nightfall—to his home… Everyone in the procession was expected to carry his or her own torch. Those without a torch would be assumed to be party crashers or even brigands. The festivities, which might last several days, would formally get under way at the groom’s house” [Carson, 513]. Matthew Henry speaks of a particular custom that apparently is referred to in this parable: “It was a custom sometimes used among the Jews on that occasion, that the bridegroom came, attended with his friends, late in the night, to the house of the bride, where she expected him, attended with her bride-maids; who, upon notice given of the bridegroom’s approach, were to go out with lamps in their hands, to light him into the house with ceremony and formality, in order to the celebrating of the nuptials with great mirth” [Henry].
We can see from this historical background that the lighted lamp of the participants in the wedding was an important, even indispensable, accessory. Without a lighted lamp, participation in the festivities would be impossible. All of the virgins brought lamps, but only the “wise” virgins brought “oil in jars” to resupply the lamp, should it go out. The “wise” virgins were labeled “wise” because they were prepared for the possibility that the bridegroom would tarry.
The metaphorical elements of this story can be fairly easily laid out. The bridegroom’s coming represents the second coming of Christ, and the delay is the tarrying of Christ. The ten virgins are the expectant Christian community, and the burning lamps represent their state of readiness for Christ’s return. “Sincere Christians are the wise virgins, and hypocrites the foolish ones, as in another parable they are represented by wise and foolish builders” [Henry]. From the outside, all ten virgins look the same: All are waiting; all have lamps; all even “became drowsy and fell asleep”. The difference would only be seen when the lamp is needed for use. Mr. Spurgeon points out the similarities between the foolish virgins, and hypocritical Christians (Christians in name only): “They may have thought that, if they had lamps that were similar to those carried by others, it would be sufficient. Perhaps they judged that the secret store of oil, being unseen, was unnecessary. They were willing to carry a lamp in one hand; but to devote the other hand to the care of an oil flask was more than they were willing to do. It is the want of the oil of grace that is the fatal flaw in many a professor’s lamp. Many have a name to live, but have not the life of God within their souls. They make a profession of attachment to Christ, but they have not the inward supply of the Spirit of grace to keep it up. There is glitter or a flash, but there is no permanent light, and there cannot be any, for although they have ‘lamps’, they have ‘no oil with them’” [Spurgeon, 360].
“The bridegroom was a long time in coming”, just as, to us it seems, Christ is a long time in coming. “Christ, as to us, seems to tarry, and yet really does not (see Hab. 2:3). There is good reason for the Bridegroom’s tarrying; there are many intermediate counsels and purposes to be accomplished, the elect must all be called in, God’s patience must be manifested, and the saints’ patience tried, the harvest of the earth must be ripened, and so must the harvest of heaven too. But though Christ tarry past our time, He will not tarry past the due time… Though Christ tarry long, He will come at last; though He seem slow, He is sure. In His first coming, He was thought long by those that waited for the consolation of Israel; yet in the fullness of time He came; so His second coming, though long deferred, is not forgotten; His enemies shall find, to their cost, that forbearance is no acquittance; and His friends shall find, to their comfort, that ‘the vision is for an appointed time, and at the end it shall speak, and not lie’ (Hab. 2:3). The year of the redeemed is fixed, and it will come” [Henry].
In the parable, at last, the bridegroom did come: “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’” (vs. 6). “Christ’s coming will be at our midnight, when we least look for him, and are most disposed to take our rest” [Henry]. Imagine the stir in that household when the “cry rang out.” Even the soundest asleep would have been aroused and scurrying about, getting ready, for this is what they were all eagerly anticipating. So also, at the return of Christ, there will be quite a to-do, to put it mildly.
“Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ ‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves’” (vss. 6–9). The “foolish” ones regretted that they were not better prepared. To them, the bridegroom’s coming was a time of great stress and anxiety, while it should have been a time of great joy and anticipation (as it was for the “wise” virgins). The “foolish” ones recognized their unpreparedness and folly, and turned to the “wise” virgins, “Give us some of your oil.” This mirrors the attitude of many “foolish” relatives of Christians, who somehow think that the faith of their “wise” relatives will account for something for them in the eyes of God. However, on judgment day, we will be on our own, if we do not have Christ. We will stand before God quite miserably alone. “Note, the day is coming, when carnal hypocrites would gladly be found in the condition of true Christians. Those who now hate the strictness of religion, will, at death and judgment, wish for the solid comforts of it. Those who care not to live the life, yet would die the death, of the righteous. The day is coming when those who now look with contempt upon humble contrite saints, would gladly get an interest in them, and would value those as their best friends and benefactors, whom now they set with the dogs of their flock” [Henry].
Much as the “wise” virgins would have liked to help the “foolish”, it was quite impossible: “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you.’” And this is quite true. “Those that have most grace, have none to spare; all we have, is little enough for ourselves to appear before God in. The best have need to borrow from Christ, but they have none to lend to any of their neighbors” [Henry].
The “foolish” virgins went off, belatedly, to get prepared, “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’” (vss. 10–12). The “foolish” virgins came, but too late. Before the coming of the bridegroom, they did not foresee (or believe) the serious consequences of their unpreparedness. “In that day, there will be two consequences only – entrance or exclusion” [Thomas, 359]. “When once the door is shut, it will never be opened” [Spurgeon, 362]. “The vain confidence of hypocrites will carry them very far in their expectations of happiness. They go to heaven-gate, and demand entrance, and yet are shut out; lifted up to heaven in a fond conceit of the goodness of their state, and yet thrust down to hell” [Henry]. The folly of the “foolish” virgins was especially pronounced by the fact that they expected to be admitted to the wedding banquet, despite their lack of preparedness. Likewise, there are many people who say, “Oh, I’m a good enough person…”, though they do not meet God’s requirements for entrance into heaven. God demands perfect holiness, which is only available through Jesus Christ.