Few of the parables of Christ have sparked such debate as that of the ten virgins and their lamps. Though it is pretty well accepted that Christ is the bridegroom much else seems to be up for debate. Questions prompted are: Who are the virgins? What is their role? What are the lamps and what is the oil all about? Some of the theories can get pretty complicated, and in my opinion, convoluted to the point where the parable is reduced to minimal importance.
Allow me to weigh in with just a few observations. The parable is found in the first 13 verses of Matthew 25. It is set amongst other parables relating to the end times, specifically the return of Christ, and how people are to be living life in anticipation of that day.
Christ starts out setting the stage as the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven could be defined as a movement through redemptive history wherein God’s plan and His ultimate sovereignty is progressively revealed.
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be comparable to ten virgins, who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom” (Matthew 25:1).
Again, the bridegroom is pretty well accepted to be Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven is God’s plan of redemption through the ages, but who are those virgins? My best offering is that the virgins, all ten of them, represent all people who have been invited to be citizens of God’s Kingdom–some of whom, as we shall see, will indeed enter that Kingdom, and some of whom will not.
The entire scene is tied to the paradigm of marriage. God has a lot to say about marriage, as a pinnacle of relational intimacy. In doing this, I think it is pretty clear that Christ is referencing the ultimate marriage and the eschatological wedding feast of the Lamb in Revelation 19, the point at which the Bride of Christ is united to her Husband.
By their actions, the ten have “self-sorted” themselves into two categories, effectively the two categories which will ultimately divide mankind–those who are foolish, and those who are wise. “Five of them were foolish, and five were prudent. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the prudent took oil in flasks along with their lamps” (Matthew 25:2-4). The dividing point of wisdom seems to be vested in their action with oil. So, what is that oil in their lamps?
“Now while the bridegroom was delaying, they all got drowsy and began to sleep. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the prudent, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the prudent answered, ‘No, there will not be enough for us and you too; go instead to the dealers and buy some for yourselves’” (Matthew 25:5-9).
The text does not say that the bridegroom was delayed, rather, He was delaying; the Lord is not willing that any should perish but that all would come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). He waits until the divine moment to come, and that is at midnight; it was an evening wedding. It was an evening processional which required illumination!
The startling heralding of the Lord’s coming awakens all the virgins, and they begin to trim their lamps. And for some, it is a moment of dreaded realization that they are ill-prepared for the event. The five foolish virgins grasp they did not have the required oil in their lamps. This awareness prompts a desperate plea for help. It seems the logical thing for the prudent virgins to do would be to give oil to those in need; but this oil, as it turns out is not transferable. The wise instruct the foolish to “go, take care of the business you should have taken care of earlier.”
So, what were the five foolish virgins missing? Again, what is that oil? Let me offer that the oil is evidence of a transformational change which has occurred internally in an individual. I’ll call it faith.
Keep in mind, that even though this is a parable, it is about very real people, with very real consequences. May I suggest that it is about very real people in the church today…in the visible church – people who think they have the prerequisite relationship with Christ. This parable very poignantly addresses those who would be called “nominal Christians.” They readily identify themselves as “Christian” though it is superficial at best.
The next few verses may be some of the most sobering in all of Scripture, as the ultimate division of souls takes place.
“And while they were going away to make the purchase, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding feast; and the door was shut” (Matthew 25:10). Let me say that when God intends a door to be shut, it remains shut; this door is shut as a permanent action, which has irrevocable consequences to those on either side.
“Later the other virgins also came, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open up for us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly I say to you, I do not know you.’” (Matthew 25:11-12).
These individuals show up, we still do not know if they have done what they were supposed to have done, but they show up. After living a life according to their own standards of redemption, they arrive pleading entry to the wedding feast. Something other than the true oil of salvation identified their “salvation.” Rather than true relationship with God, they have chosen “something like Him.” In fact, there is nothing like Him. There is no other name under Heaven by which one is saved than the name of Jesus. Christ says, “I do not know you.” In other words, I have no relationship with you. We find out with certainty that the oil represents an authentic relationship with Christ, and they have none. No entry into the eternal Kingdom of God is granted.
All ten virgins were invited. All responded with some kind of desire to go to the wedding. On the outside, they appeared to be the same, but internally, they were altogether different. A difference which would seal their destiny.
Is this a good story? Is this a bad story? Is it a story of judgment? Is it a story of encouragement? Allow me to say that is is a picture of the present-day visible church. Some are truly saved; some are not. Let me also say that this is a caution for you to examine yourself, that you have indeed done what you have needed to do in order to be right with God. It is an exhortation to not be a nominal Christian – someone who professes Christ and yet, operates according to a different set of rules.
Some have been in the church so long, they think that makes them right. Some have served in the church. Some may be gifted teachers with incredible knowledge, but that is not what saves. We are saved by the grace of God through faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ.
The final verse in the parable is an exhortation then to all mankind: “Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13).
Get right now! There are people in the church who have heard the Gospel of Christ and have somewhat responded. They may affirm the historical Jesus, and love being around the church; but, are they ready to meet Him? Faith is not transferable.
We are not saved by our actions, but our salvation should be affirmed by them. Now is the day of salvation. Take it seriously. Let there be no doubt of a transformed life within.
When the door is shut, it is shut!