Many people expected the world to end in 2012. This expectation was based on the belief that cataclysmic events would occur on or around 21 December 2012, which was regarded as the end-date of a 5,126-year-long cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar. But 2013 rolled in putting an end to yet another prediction of the end of the world with nothing more disastrous than egg on a lot of faces. So is the world ever going to end? The answer is a definitive yes, but when that happens is up to God, not to Mayans or tin pot dictators with nuclear weapons at their disposal, so let’s see what he says about the whole thing.
One day Jesus had gone to the temple with his disciples, and when they came out he said the temple was going to be destroyed with not a single stone left standing. Believing that he was speaking about the end of the world, they asked him when that would happen. In typical form, Jesus launched into a long sermon about the various signs that would precede his return, which would signal the end of everything as we knew it, but then concluded by saying that the exact day when that would happen was not known to anybody. Then he told them several stories about the necessity of watchfulness, which included a tale about ten virgins.
First things first
The Parable of the Ten Virgins is a fascinating tale on any level, and while there are many lessons that can be gleaned from even a cursory reading, what will make it more interesting is looking at the story in the context of its telling.
The marriage process in the Jewish culture of Jesus’ time is hugely different from how it is in our society today. It took place in three phases. The first phase was the promise of marriage, similar to the engagement ceremony we have these days. This was a formal agreement made between both parties, usually between the parents of the couple, and sealed with a dowry paid to the father of the bride by the father of the groom.
The second phase was the betrothal. Gifts were exchanged and vows were made. These vows bound the couple to each other and the union could be broken only by divorce. Which means they were pretty much married. However, the marriage would not be consummated until after the third phase which was the wedding feast.
The wedding feast could take place weeks or even months after the betrothal, and only after this would the couple live together as husband and wife. (When the angel visited Mary with news that she was going to be the mother of Jesus, she was in the second phase of betrothal to Joseph. This might shed a lot of understanding on the things she said to the angel that led to the Catholic belief that she was ever-virgin.)
The wedding festivities could go on for days, depending on how grand it was, and given that there were ten bridesmaids for this one, it was obviously a huge affair! The bridesmaids would wait for the groom to arrive, and then escort him to the banquet hall with their oil-lit lamps. This was before the age of electricity, remember, and streets without lamps to light them would be dangerously dark, especially on nights when there wasn’t any moonlight.
The arrival of the bridegroom would herald the commencement of the festivities and it was not unusual for him to make a late appearance as it would give time for guests who had to travel long distances to arrive in time. In this story, however, he makes his appearance very, very late. And the bridesmaids, tired of waiting for him, fell asleep—all of them—until they heard the cry ring out that the bridegroom was approaching. And this is when the story really starts.
The Wise and the Foolish Virgins
The ten women woke up and rushed to trim their lamps. Five of them (rightly called foolish in this story) discovered they didn’t have enough oil and asked the other five (called wise, because they had carried extra oil with them) to give them some. But the wise women replied that they didn’t have enough to go around; the others should go and see if they could get some oil from the dealers. Moments after the women rushed out, undoubtedly cursing their stupidity, the bridegroom arrived. Those who were ready went with him to the feast, where the guests had waited patiently for the groom to show up. Almost immediately the door was closed and the festivities commenced.
Later—we don’t know how much later, or whether the foolish women had managed to find oil—they arrived at the feast only to be told by the bridegroom that he didn’t know them. Ouch.
The Parable Interpreted
In the Parable of the Faithful or the Unfaithful Slave that precedes this parable, Jesus speaks about how terrible it would be for the slave who is found behaving badly when his master arrives unexpectedly. Following immediately on the heels of that, there is no doubt that Jesus is speaking about his return in this parable which will happen when least expected.
Two thousand years have passed since Jesus said he would return and there are not many who believe he will be back. Even those who do, don’t believe it will be any time soon. When was the last time you heard a sermon preached about the return of Jesus? Or a prayer said to hasten his coming? Yet, we have Jesus’ word that he would be returning. So why the delay then?
The apostle Peter might have an answer. Not only does he explain the delay in Jesus’ coming, he also speaks about the suddenness with which he would come. “First of all you must understand this, that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!” They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the godless.
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed” (2 Peter 3:3-10).
Sudden. Spectacular. Severe. That’s how Peter describes the Second Coming. The question is: are we ready for it? Or have our hearts become cold just as Jesus said they would become (cf. Matthew 24:12)? This story should give us plenty of food for thought, so let us study it in detail.
There is a great richness of symbolism in every single element of this story and we would do well to decipher these because of the insights that each element provides.
The bridegroom, of course, is Jesus. We know this because Jesus is talking about his own return. In his letter to the Corinthians Paul confirms this by writing: I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2).
The husband—the groom—is Christ, and we are clued into who the ten virgins are from this verse as well. It’s us—the entire body of believers that comprise the Church. (I will use both terms interchangeably for the remainder of this article.) Ten was an important number to the Jews and represents an indefinite multitude hence “ten virgins”.
Why five and five, though? The human soul is denoted by the number five because there are five senses in the body: sight, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. Being virgin denotes a purity of soul. How do we obtain this purity? Surely, not by merit, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). After declaring that, Paul continues: they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith (Romans 3:24-25).
We are all justified—made pure—by grace, effective through faith. This is what makes us holy, pure, in every way. This is what makes us “virgins”. Let us be absolutely clear about this. Paul writes: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast: (Ephesians 2:8-9). The lamps the virgins in our story carry are a sign of that holiness. (It is a reason we hold candles at baptism.)
The ten virgins all held lamps, a sign of their purity. In a manner of speaking, it was their entrance ticket to the wedding feast after which they would be with the groom they had all been waiting for. But five of the women ran out of oil! Merely having the lamps were not enough to get them into the banquet hall. The lamps had to be lit. And that needed oil.
What could this oil be? Some commentators have suggested this is grace. But grace is a free gift of God that they had already received, so it can’t be that. Besides, you can’t really run out of grace.
Other commentators have suggested the oil is faith? But the virgins already had faith; they showed it by their acceptance of the gift of grace! We can believe in Jesus and receive salvation only through faith. So it can’t be faith either. All ten virgins expected to go with the bridegroom for the feast so they had enough faith.
What then? It had to be something that they needed to do! What could that be? Jesus said something about shining lights that may provide a clue. He said: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Good works? Could it be that? One can only imagine the protests. So let’s examine the evidence.
Immediately after the telling of this parable, Jesus told his apostles another parable. It was the Parable of the Talents (see Matthew 25:14-30). In this story a man (Jesus) going on a journey summoned three of his servants and gave each of them talents (coins). When he returned he asked them to account for what they did with the money given to them. He rewarded the servants who had increased what they had been given but sentenced the one who did nothing into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25:30). What does this suggest to you?
And then Jesus concluded his teaching with the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, where there is a king (Jesus again) sitting in judgment over nations and yet again they are judged according to their actions. To quote Jesus: ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ (Matthew 25:41-43).
Good works seems to be it, after all. But then, if this is the case, then the foolish virgins also had good works to show. After all, their lamps had oil and burned too. How does one explain why they didn’t make it to the feast? Was it a shortage of good works? We will get to that but let us first address the matter of the virgins falling asleep.
The common assumption is to believe that ALL the women dropped off to sleep because of the lateness of the hour. Surely that is a reasonable supposition, but there is another possibility to consider: that the sleep was a little more permanent. What is the rationale for this? Consider Jesus’ words where he speaks about what would happen when his coming was delayed: And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved (Matthew 24:12-13).
The wise virgins would not have become cold at the delay of the bridegroom’s coming, but would have remained alert, no matter how long he took to come. This implies a state of wakefulness. So their sleeping was the sleep that Paul wrote about in his letter to the Thessalonians: Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death (1 Thessalonians 4:13 NIV).
And then everything starts to make more sense, including the cry at midnight announcing the arrival of the bridegroom, and everything else that follows. What was the cry at midnight? It was the trumpet blast signaling the Final Judgment. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised (1 Corinthians 15:52). Jesus himself said: Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation (John 5:28‑29). Don’t miss the phrase “done good”.
And all the virgins wake up. They go to trim their lamps. Note that the lamps of the foolish virgins are still burning, but they are dying off. They go to the wise virgins for more oil but are told: “Go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” This isn’t rudeness, but humility as the wise virgins acknowledge that they may not have enough for themselves. Those who are wise among us have the hope of salvation—as translated from Greek elpis, this is the confident expectation of salvation—not the surety of it, because our entry into heaven is something that only God can decide. It turns out that the virgins have enough oil in their lamps, because they go out to meet the bridegroom who takes them to the feast.
And then the doors close!
Fear is not a good thing when it paralyzes the spirit from action, but it can be a wise thing at times. After all, it is the fear of falling to his death that makes a man climb a tree with caution. It is the fear of meeting with a terrible accident that keeps a woman from driving rashly. And it is the fear of losing salvation that keeps us all from committing deliberate and continuous sin.
It is a fear that Paul had, which is why he said: I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:27). What a shame it would have been to him to see those he had brought to Jesus go through the doors of heaven, but he left outside in the cold. Why was this preacher of grace afraid though? Because Jesus had warned without mincing words: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers” (Matthew 7:21-23).
Which brings us to the matter of the oil in the lamps of the foolish virgins. Not only was there not enough oil, there was something spurious about it. They might have shouted their Alleluias and professed that Jesus was Lord, but didn’t bother doing what he asked them to do. Some may not have even known what he wanted them to do because his will was the farthest things on their minds as reading the Bible was more effort than it justified. Wasn’t it enough that they believed he was Lord?
Some lamps may have even burned brightly as those carrying them worked mighty miracles in the name of Jesus, but it may have been with the wrong motivation. It may have been to gain glory for themselves. Self-glorification is never the right motivation when it comes to the things of God, not even when the works we do might be wonderful, as we lay some huge foundations. Paul says that the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done” (1 Corinthians 3:13). It isn’t just the good works that get us in; it’s the good works we do for the glory of God. And these are motivated by the Holy Spirit who leads us and guides us in all things.
A Heart Check
Fire departments sometimes do a drill in buildings to check the readiness of tenants in the event there is a fire. Let us do something similar to check our own readiness for the return of our Lord. When that trumpet blast sounds, do you believe you are ready to go with him to the wedding feast that awaits the victorious? There are several “readiness checks” but let us just consider three.
One: Have we been leading a life that reflects one who has been born again, allowing ourselves to be led and guided by the Holy Spirit in all we do? Or do we persist in living in the flesh, giving in to our desires without second thought of the consequences, believing our faith in Christ gives us a free ticket into heaven?
Two: Do we show, by our actions, that our faith does not merely comprise belief in Jesus as Savior, but also belief that everything he says is true? Or do we believe that we can pick and choose what we want to follow and discard the rest?
And three: Are the good works we do for the glory of God or to gain the acclaim of our fellowmen?
These are serious questions that need to be answered, especially by those who have known him for a long time and are in service to him, because our entry to the wedding feast depends on it. Let’s all get there and party!