As we come to chapter 25 of Matthew, we are still dealing with the unbroken discourse which Jesus delivered to His disciples. In this parable, He continues the solemn declaration of the uncertainty of the time of His return and of the necessity of being ready for such an event. The opening word "then" is important in a two-fold way. First, it is a link binding the previous chapter and this one together. There was no break in our Lord's discourse, as is clear from a comparison of:
Matthew 24:42 (NKJV) "Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming.
Matthew 24:44 (NKJV) "Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
Matthew 25:13 (NKJV) "Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.
Both emphasize the need of being prepared at all times for the coming of the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.
The word "then" also provides the key to the interpretation. When will the Kingdom of Heaven be like ten virgins? When He comes at the consummation of the age. The previous parable of the householder and servants, this one of "The Virgins" and the next one of "The Talents," all belong to the same period. They speak of the time between the ascension and the second coming in AD 70. All three parables speak of an absent Lord, but in each case, He returns to deal with those who, during His absence, were left with certain responsibilities.
So, the parable concerns an absent bridegroom, and it is only incidentally about him, for our Lord focuses primarily upon those who are waiting for the bridegroom. The wedding, in this parable, is an Eastern wedding, and in the East, customs are different than they are in the West. In the Eastern wedding, the bridegroom is the important figure.
Our Lord is spotlighting the experience of ten young virgins who were waiting for the coming of the bridegroom. Their experience is described for us in the first six verses:
Matthew 25:1-6 (NKJV) "Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 "Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish. 3 "Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, 4 "but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. 5 "But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. 6 "And at midnight a cry was heard: 'Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!'
"Then the kingdom of heaven.." The terms "Kingdom of God" and "Kingdom of heaven" correspond with what Daniel says about "the God of heaven setting up a kingdom":
Daniel 2:44 (NKJV) "And in the days of these kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever.
Daniel had foretold of a coming time when the everlasting kingdom would be established. Christianity is the kingdom of God. And notice that Daniel say that this kingdom will stand forever. The kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven, is quite simply, the rule and reign of God.
"shall be likened.." This means, when the Son of man returns to judgement, it will be as it was in the case of ten virgins in a marriage ceremony. The parable deals with the onset of the consummated kingdom. The Lord is still dealing with the disciple's questions about the destruction of the temple, the Lord's parousia, and the end of the age. We could put it this way; the end of the Jewish age and the consummation of the kingdom of God will be like the coming of a bridegroom to a waiting bridal party.
Here we see the kingdom of heaven compared to an Eastern wedding. If we look at this parable with western twentieth century eyes, it may seem an unnatural and made up story. But, in fact, it tells a story which could have happened at any time in a Palestinian village, and which could still happen today.
Marriage ceremonies in the East were conducted with great pomp and solemnity. They were a great occasion. The whole village turned out to accompany the couple to their new home, and they went by the longest possible road, in order that they might receive the glad good wishes of as many as possible. "Everyone," runs the Jewish saying, "from six to sixty will follow the marriage drum." The Rabbis agreed that a man might even abandon the study of the law to share in the joy of a wedding feast.
The point of the story lies in a Jewish custom which is very different from anything we know. When a couple married, they did not go away for a honeymoon; they stayed at the bride's father's home; for a week, they kept open house; they were treated, and even addressed, as prince and princess; it was the gladdest week in all of their lives. To the festivities of that week, their chosen friends were admitted. At the end of that time, the bridegroom conducted the bride with great pomp and splendor to his own home. This was done in the evening, or at night. Many friends and relatives attended them; and besides those who went with them from the house of the bride, there was another company that came out from the house of the bridegroom to meet them and welcome them. These are the virgins mentioned in this parable.
Dr. J. Alexander Findlay tells of what he, himself, saw in Palestine. "When we were approaching the gates of a Galilaean town," he writes, "I caught a sight of ten maidens gaily clad and playing some kind of musical instrument, as they danced along the road in front of our car; when I asked what they were doing, the dragoman told me that they were going to keep the bride company till her bridegroom arrived. I asked him if there was any chance of seeing the wedding, but he shook his head, saying in effect: 'It might be tonight, or tomorrow night, or in a fornight's time; nobody ever knew for certain.' Then he went on to explain that one of the great things to do, if you could, at a middle-class wedding in Palestine, was to catch the bridal party napping. So the bridegroom comes unexpectedly, and sometimes in the middle of the night; it is true that he is required by public opinion to send a man along the street to shout: 'Behold! The bridegroom is coming!' but that may happen at any time; so the bridal party have to be ready to go out into the street at any time to meet him, whenever he chooses to come....other important points are that no one is allowed on the streets after dark without a lighted lamp, and also that, when the bridegroom has once arrived, and the door has been shut, late-comers to the ceremony are not admitted." There the whole drama of Jesus's parable is re-enacted in the twentieth century. Like so many of Jesus's parables, this one has an immediate and local meaning. That is the background of the picture our Lord draws here.
Here are ten virgins waiting to join the wedding party. They are expecting the bridegroom, and therefore, they are waiting expectantly. Is the number ten significant? As seven among the Jews denoted perfection, so ten was the number that made a thing complete. A company was considered complete if ten were present. There was an ancient Jewish law that wherever there were ten Jews, a synagogue could be built. Ten was probably a usual number on such a wedding occasion. The company of those who attended as mourners at a funeral was fixed by rabbinical authority to ten at least, and this number seems to have been thought necessary to form a company. Ten, then, is the number of completeness and as used here, implies the church.
Who are the virgins? In the flow and purpose of this parable, the "virgins" who are expecting the Bridegroom, would be the church. Notice how Paul uses this analogy of virgins:
2 Corinthians 11:2 (NKJV) For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.
But, we must be careful not to try to press too much meaning into these figures. Many commentators discover a spiritual significance in the virgins, as if this term denoted those specially devoted to Christ, which necessitates a forced interpretation of the conclusion of the parable. The virgins were the usual companions of the bride, and her proper attendants on such an occasion. They are, therefore, naturally introduced as part of the imagery of the parable.
Do you remember what we said last week about parables? It is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Bernard Ramm, in his book, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, says, "The golden rule of parabolic interpretation is -- Determine the one central truth the parable is attempting to teach." We must keep this in mind or we will get lost in all the details and miss the main point. Others have put the rule this way: Don't make a parable walk on all fours. So, our objective, as we study this parable, is to find its one central message.
If you don't try to pick out every detail of the parable and make it mean something you can easily understand, the one central message of this parable is this; preparedness is essential, for the time is coming when getting ready will no longer be possible; the door will be shut. The overriding theme is preparedness for the coming of the Son of Man. It should be clear that this parable is an amplification of one word which our Lord gave to his disciples, after he had outlined the course of events. He said to them, "Watch!"
Some folks try to make each item in the parable mean something symbolic and they end up with all kinds of strange ideas. One commentator claims that the virgins represent Jewish scholars, the lamps, Torah, and the oil, good deeds. The foolish virgins are Jewish scholars who study Torah but who fail to practice good deeds. They are, therefore, excluded from the Chamber of Instruction.
The "Liberty Commentary" says this, "The parable of the Ten Virgins explains the place of Israel's true converts of the Tribulation period in relation to the church. The one bride of Christ is the church, John the Baptist is the best man, and the prepared virgins are the saved of the Tribulation period. The fact that they all slept, implies a period of Jewish inactivity during the Church Age, while the bride is gathered." Now, how they get all of that out of this parable, I don't know. It takes a vivid imagination.
Now, as in the previous parable of the household which was waiting for its absent lord, this parable obviously is intended to describe those who lived between the Lord's ascension and His second coming. Our Lord knew at this time that he was soon going away. He knew there would be an intervening period of time before his return again, and he is describing, by means of these three parables, what he means by his command, "Watch." This parable stresses the need for preparedness in the face of an unexpected delay.
Last week we saw that the first parable indicates that watching involves understanding and obeying the Word of God. They needed to understand the Christian doctrine so that they would not turn back to Judaism.
Here is this story about ten virgins, waiting for the bridegroom's coming, and certain clues are given to us to reveal the meaning our Lord is after.
Notice, first of all, that there is a division among these ten. They fall into two groups: five were wise, and five were foolish. The first question, therefore, that immediately confronts us is, "What makes the difference?" In what way are five wise, and the other five foolish? You can see immediately that there were certain very similar things about all ten of them. They all intended to meet the bridegroom and to escort him to the place where the festivities were to be held. They all had lamps, so that is not the ground of division. Also, they all had oil when they started; so it is not that. Further, they all were expecting the bridegroom's coming; they all had a sense of expectation. Also, when he was delayed, they all went to sleep.
Matthew 25:5 (NKJV) "But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept.
In each of these parables, the Lord clearly indicates that there is going to be what seemed to them as a long delay before His parousia.
Matthew 24:48 (NKJV) "But if that evil servant says in his heart, 'My master is delaying his coming,'
Matthew 25:19 (NKJV) "After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them.
Commenting on the long delay, Stephen F. Hayhow writes, "Both parables, the parables of the virgins, and the parable of the talents, speak of the absence of the bridegroom/master, who is said to be 'a long time in coming' (v. 5) and 'After a long time the master of the servants returned' (v. 19). This suggests, not the events of A.D. 70 which were to occur in the near future, in fact within the space of a generation, but a distant event, the return of Christ."
He is saying that the delay that Jesus speaks of will be some 2,000 years. We must understand this delay in light of all that the Scripture says about his second coming. Scriptures indicate that he was to come back within a forty year period. The early Christians expected him to return within their lifetime because that is what he, himself, said he would do. From the time Jesus spoke these parables until he returned in AD 70 was about forty years. Now, let me ask you a question, "Is forty years a long time to you?" Yes, to those waiting for His return, forty years must have seemed like a very long time.
One expositor writes, "But Jesus did not teach a soon return at all. He clearly indicated, not only by implication and indirect statement, as in this parable, but also very specifically that it would be a long time before his return. The bridegroom would be delayed. In the previous parable of the household there is the same thing. The servant says to himself, 'My lord delays his coming,' (Matt 24:48). Also in the following parable we find it even clearer. 'After a long time' (Matt 25:19) the master comes to demand an accounting from his servants. Jesus clearly taught that it would be a long time before his return to earth again."
He said, "Jesus did not teach a soon return at all." I guess we would have to define "soon." He is correct if he is saying that Jesus did not teach that he would return in a year or two or even in ten. But He very clearly taught that He would come in the lifetime of those to whom He spoke.
Matthew 10:23 (NKJV) "When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
Matthew 16:28 (NKJV) "Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom."
Matthew 24:34 (NKJV) "Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.
So, this long delay must be seen in light of all the Scripture has to say about the second coming. Gary DeMar has this excellent comment on the delay. "The parables of Matthew 24-25 are clear on the duration of the delays-- the two masters who go on a journey return to the same people they left. There is no need to allegorize these parables to force them to depict a distant coming of Christ. In addition, the delay of the bridegroom in the parable of the ten virgins is not very long, unless the virgins are related to Rip Van Winkle. The virgins get drowsy at dusk, and the bridegroom returns at midnight (25:6). How can this 'delay' be turned into a span of time nearly two thousand years in length?"
So, while they were waiting for the bridegroom, the ten virgins fell asleep. Here again some who read this parable misinterpret it and say that this is wrong; these virgins should never have slept. But there is nothing in this story to indicate that it was wrong for these girls to sleep. It was a perfectly natural thing for them to do. After all, it was night, and since it was a festive occasion and they could not do any work, there is no reason why they should not sleep. They were simply waiting for the bridegroom to appear, and when he was delayed, it was only natural for them to catch a few winks while waiting. Our Lord never indicates any blame toward these virgins because they slept. The foolish slept, and the wise as well. We must be careful, in interpreting these stories, not to read into them things that are not implied.
It is, perhaps, suggestive that our Lord records that they all slept. This indicates that when he said, "Watch," he clearly did not mean that we are to be constantly staring into the sky looking for his return.
But now, according to the story, at midnight came a cry, "Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him." That immediately plunges us into the rest of the story,
Matthew 25:7-13 (NKJV) "Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. 8 "And the foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' 9 "But the wise answered, saying, 'No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.' 10 "And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut. 11 "Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, 'Lord, Lord, open to us!' 12 "But he answered and said, 'Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.' 13 "Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.
It is immediately evident from this that the crucial difference between the wise and the foolish lay in the fact that the wise had extra oil. They all had oil to begin with, but the wise took along an extra supply. That is what made it possible for them to endure the unexpected delay of the bridegroom.
What does the oil symbolize? A big deal is made of the oil because many think it is what divides these virgins. I think they are wrong, but let's look at what they have to say about the oil. Cook writes, "The flame of the lamp is outward and visible; the oil which feeds it is inward and invisible. The foolish virgins had an outward show of religion, but were deficient in the inward source from which true religion springs, and by which it is maintained." The majority of commentators take the "oil" to be a symbol of the Holy Spirit, and believe that the wise, having oil, represent the truly regenerated. But they both had oil to begin with, the foolish virgins simply ran out. How can the oil refer to the Holy Spirit, do we run out of Holy Spirit?
The theme of this parable turns on the bridegroom's delay. The foolish virgins do not forget to bring oil, but the delay of the bridegroom shows they did not bring enough. The oil cannot be forced to mean "good works" or "the Holy Spirit." It is merely an element in the story showing that the foolish virgins were not prepared for the delay and so missed the joy of the wedding feast. It is preparedness that distinguishes the wise from the foolish virgins. The wise were prepared to last through the delay.
The five foolish virgins probably expected that the bridegroom would come very soon; they, therefore, made no provision for the delay. The wise virgins knew that the time of his coming was uncertain, and they, therefore, were prepared for a delay.
Without a light, these maidens could not get into the marriage feast. Our Lord does not say why, but it is obviously clear that without a light they would not be admitted.
Matthew 25:10 (NKJV) "And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut.
When the bridegroom came, only those who were ready went in. The word "ready" is hetoimos, it means, ready:--prepared. It is the same Greek word used in:
Matthew 24:44 (NKJV) "Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
Again, the same idea is seen here, they were not ready, they were unprepared and so they didn't get in.
Matthew 25:13 (NKJV) "Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.
The Greek word for "watch" here is gregoreuo. It means to keep awake, i.e. watch (lit. or fig.):--be vigilant. It is the same word that was used in:
Matthew 24:42-43 (NKJV) "Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. 43 "But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into.
It should be clear that the idea in this parable is the same as we saw in the previous one. To not watch would cost the first century saints dearly. It would cost them their lives.
Luke 17:26-33 (NKJV) "And as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be also in the days of the Son of Man: 27 "They ate, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. 28 "Likewise as it was also in the days of Lot: They ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built; 29 "but on the day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. 30 "Even so will it be in the day when the Son of Man is revealed. 31 "In that day, he who is on the housetop, and his goods are in the house, let him not come down to take them away. And likewise the one who is in the field, let him not turn back. 32 "Remember Lot's wife. 33 "Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.
They needed to be prepared to flee Jerusalem in light of His coming. This is the scope or design of the whole parable. We also see here the idea again that they don't know the day or the hour of his coming and are, therefore, to always be watching. Notice that here the bridegroom is identified as the Son of Man. Like the coming of the bridegroom, his advent will be sudden and costly for those who are not prepared.
Notice here that the marriage of Christ (the bridegroom, v.10) occurs in connection with His parousia (v.13). Unless Christ is involved in more than one marriage, His marriage in Revelation 19, also is connected with the fall of Babylon (the city where Christ was crucified), hence the destruction of Jerusalem is the time frame of His parousia and, therefore, of His marriage.
The warning of the parable is not to be confused by seeking too many spiritual meanings of the oil, the sleep, the vessels, and the lamps. The parable's burden is that of readiness for the Bridegrooms's coming. The parable is not addressed to those who have made no preparation for the Lord's coming, but to those who have not made sufficient preparation.
Why were these virgins foolish? What was it that made them foolish? They were foolish in that they were not prepared, and they were unprepared for the Lord's coming because instead of remaining faithful to the Apostles doctrine, they were turning back to the Jewish law system. We saw last week that watching had to do with understanding and following sound doctrine. Near the end of the transition period, many turned away from faith and were going back under the law. The persecution and trials caused them to fall away. They turned back to the Jewish system, and thus were destroyed in the Jewish war, the door was shut. If they did not flee Jerusalem quickly, they lost all opportunity to escape. The door had been shut. The word used in Matthew 25 for foolish, is the Greek word moros. It means dull or stupid. This same word is used in:
Titus 3:9-11 (NKJV) But avoid foolish disputes, genealogies, contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and useless. 10 Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, 11 knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned.
What is referred to as foolish here is the teachings of the circumcision party. These Judaizers were constantly on the Christians to keep the Jewish law. The conflict that raged in the New Testament times is to be understood in terms of two covenants. Outwardly, the Old Covenant order remained intact, and Jewish Christianity, as a whole, was blinded to the age-changing significance of Christ's death and resurrection. Paul dealt much with this subject in the book of Galatians. The Galatians were acting foolish in turning back to the law.
Galatians 3:1-3 (NKJV) O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? 2 This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?
Paul asked the Galatians, who were being pressured to be circumcised, and thus retain the old with the new, "This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?" Here, flesh and Spirit stand for the two modes of existence as determined by the two covenants. Paul's question is, "Does it take the old age of the flesh to make you perfect or complete in the new age of the Spirit, where the promise is bing fulfilled?" The question, "Are you now being made perfect by the flesh?" Is asking if they are made perfect by adding the ceremonial works of the law to the gospel. The had begun in the Spirit, they were Christians. But they were now turning back to the law which was foolish and would cause them not to be watchful.
This is the emphasis of the book of Hebrews; if they turn back to Judaism they will be destroyed in its destruction.
Hebrews 10:26-31 (NKJV) For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has rejected Moses' law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know Him who said, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay," says the Lord. And again, "The LORD will judge His people." 31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
This is speaking of a believer; he was sanctified (v.29) but he was turning away from the gospel and going back to Judaism.
Hebrews 10:35-38 (NKJV) Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward. 36 For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise: 37 "For yet a little while, And He who is coming will come and will not tarry. 38 Now the just shall live by faith; But if anyone draws back, My soul has no pleasure in him."
He is coming in a very little while and you need to keep living by faith. If you draw back, you will be destroyed at His coming.
Jesus had told his disciples that he would come in their lifetime, but they did not know the day or hour so they were to always be watching. Those who were wise would be prepared for His coming and would thus escape the destruction of the city, thus rejoicing in His judgement on the Old Covenant world. If they were foolish and not watching, he would come unexpectedly and they would suffer great pain as the city was destroyed. Being foolish would cost them their lives.
This parable was given to first century saints. They were to be watching and ready for His coming. Its application to us is found in its universal principle that those believers who know and obey the Word of God are blessed, and those believers who are not obedient to the principles of the Word of God will be disciplined of the Lord. We are not to watch for his coming, but we are to live by His Word, and when we fail to do this, it will cost us.
Jesus concluded the sermon on the Mount like this:
Matthew 7:24-27 (NKJV) "Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: 25 "and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. 26 "But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: 27 "and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall."
The issue here is obedience to Jesus' teaching. When you build your house on rock (live in obedience), the storms of life will not effect it, but when you build on the sand (live in disobedience), the storms of life will cause your house to fall. Wisdom is equated with obedience and foolishness with disobedience. Where are you building your house?
In the recent Noreaster, one man lost over seven homes in the Sandbridge section of Virginia Beach. As we were listening to the news report of his loss, my nine year old daughter, Lindsey, said, "That's what he gets for not listening to the Bible." I asked her what she meant by that, and she said, "The Bible says not to build your house on the sand." She is so right! Many of us don't heed its warning. We live our lives in disobedience to God's Word, and in doing so, we build on the sand. Living in disobedience to the teaching of Jesus will cost us.
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