“The Kingdom of Heaven is illustrated by the experience of ten bridesmaids who take their lamps and go to meet the groom. Five of them are wise and five are foolish. The negligent ones take no extra oil for their lamps, but the prudent bring additional flasks of oil. Because the groom is late in arriving, they all grow drowsy and fall asleep. At midnight someone cries out, ‘Behold, the groom is coming; go out and meet him!’ Then all the girls get up and prepare their lamps. The foolish say to the wise, ‘Share your oil with us, for our lamps are burning low.’ But the wise say, ‘No, because there will not be enough for all of us. Go to the merchant and buy your own.’ But while they are gone, the groom arrives. Those who are ready go with him into the banquet hall and the door is shut. Later the other girls return and say, ‘Lord, Lord, open the door and let us in!’ But he says, ‘Truly, I do not know you.’ Therefore be watchful, for you do not know either the day or the hour when the Son of Man will arrive.” (Mt. 25:1-13, paraphrased)
Jesus teaches a series of parables which focus on the need for expectation and watchfulness concerning His eminent return (Mt. 24:42- 25:46). The word “then” shows there is no break between the previous parable concerning wise and foolish servants (Mt. 24:45-51) and the parable of the ten virgins. The thought of wise preparedness is continued in the parables of The Talents (vv. 14-30) and The Sheep and Goats (vv. 31-46). In each of these narratives, servants are aware their absent Lord will return unexpectedly. All these stories target the responsibilities of Believers while the Master is away (24:48).
This parable serves as a warning that some will be barred from the kingdom of God through irresponsibility and thoughtlessness. The specifics regarding His arrival are deliberately obscure because every Believer is expected to make sufficient preparation.
Jewish weddings in the first century followed a specific pattern. In Jesus’ day the matrimonial procedure consisted of three stages.
1. The engagement takes place via an agreement by the respective fathers of the bride and groom.
2. The betrothal ceremony occurs in the home of the bride’s parents. Vows are made before witnesses and presents are given by the groom to his bride. A betrothed couple is regarded as married. Because such vows are binding, neither can marry another unless there is a legal divorce. The premature death of the groom labels the woman as a widow.
3. The marriage is consummated about a year later. The bridesmaids wait expectantly with the bride to meet the groom and escort him to her home when his approach is signaled. A procession follows in which the groom brings his bride to his house where a marital feast is celebrated. It is this evening procession in which the ten virgins are involved. It is customary for bridesmaids to partake of the nuptial feast. The concept of “virgins” (parthenos) in the parable does not focus on morality, for in that era the chastity of young girls is assumed. Neither is there any special symbolism attached to “ten”, for this is the usual number of lamp-bearers in a bridal procession. The background of this wedding is deliberately obscure so that readers do not get bogged down in trivial details and miss the primary lesson.
A marital feast analogizes the joys of salvation (Rev. 3:20). Both John the Baptist and Christ Himself depict the Messiah as a groom (In. 3:19-29 & Mk. 2:19). To serve the purpose of this parable, the ten virgins represent the Church. Jesus does not mention a bride in the story, for her presence is not essential in order to understand the lesson. New Testament writers portray Christ as the Groom and the Church as His bride (Eph. 5:25). Paul speaks of presenting the Church as a chaste virgin to Christ (II Cor. 11 :2).
By accepting the invitation to be involved in the wedding party, each girl is obligated to be prepared. The words and actions of the foolish virgins are more prominent because they are the focus of this parabolic lesson. Oil is the essential element in this parable. It is assumed the lamps the girls carry are the traditional type containing a simple wick exposed above a reservoir of olive oil. Prudent people in those days bring extra flasks of oil to refill their lamps. Five of the girls bring their lamps but neglect to bring additional oil.
Wisdom or foolishness is manifested by either preparedness or unpreparedness. Should the groom be delayed, the wise are equipped and the unwise are not. Realizing the importance of their assignment, the wise are ready.
“Oil” has been variously interpreted as representing faith, grace, or the Holy Spirit. What oil precisely symbolizes in this story remains a mystery. Whatever it represents, a wise Believer always strives to have a sufficient supply.
Neither praise nor blame is attached to any of the ten girls regarding sleep for “they all slumbered and slept.” The first verb implies sleepiness and nodding whereas the second refers to a restful state of sleep. Even the prudent bridesmaids fall asleep. This is natural and not sinful. Those who are prepared for the groom’s arrival can rest assured, while those with insufficient oil have no right to rest.
Midnight is an hour when most people are in a deep state of sleep. The concept of “the midnight hour” symbolizes an era of eschatological crisis (Mk. 13:35). The Hebrews were delivered from the Egyptians at the midnight hour (Ex. 12:29). Those who hear Jesus teach this parable can immediately relate to this concept, for it is a traditional belief among the Jews that the Messiah will arrive at midnight.
The sudden announcement of the groom’s arrival is the highlight of the parable. The term “cry” indicates intense excitement. Perhaps this is a subtle allusion to the voice of the archangel who will announce Jesus’ second advent (I Thess. 4: 16).
The Groom is scheduled to return, although the exact day and hour is not specified. Although He tarries, His arrival is eminent. He comes “as a thief in the night” (I Thess. 5:2).
In external appearance, all the virgins appear the same. All are dressed for the occasion. All have lamps with oil and everyone is there for the same reason. All have the same anticipation and the same opportunity. All are ignorant of the precise time of the groom’s arrival. All sleep while awaiting the groom and all arise simultaneously to trim their lamps when His arrival is announced. But although all ten girls have many things in common, differences among them soon become apparent. It is their advance preparations that set five of them apart from the other five.
The trimming of a lamp is accomplished by removing the charred portion of the wick and replenishing the base of the lamp with olive oil. The bridesmaids must have their lamps burning when they go outside to meet the groom. They will need to carry extra oil in order to escort him back to the bride’s house and then lead the bridal procession back to the groom’s home. It can be assumed the five foolish girls are aware of their lack of oil but had not previously been concerned enough to acquire more in advance.
The sin of the foolish virgins is not hypocrisy. They perform no overt act of wickedness. They are not immoral. They are faulted for negligence because they do not allow for the possibility of the groom’s delay.
A crisis reveals the difference between the prudent and the frivolous girls. Their shortsightedness is manifested by the suddenness of the groom’ arrival. In their panic they can conceive of only one solution: they will implore the wise to share their oil with them.
Many Believers think they can rely on others to supply what they themselves lack. Some feel an initial salvation experience or church membership is sufficient. This story teaches otherwise. The request of the foolish girls is illogical. It is unfair for the ill-prepared to petition those who are well prepared.
The wise do not scold the foolish. Their answer is not unkind. It is a pragmatic statement of fact. If they share their oil everyone’s lamp will soon be extinguished. The Greek language here is emphatic. “There will most certainly not be enough for all of us.” The wise are horrified to imagine the groom will arrive and find ten bridesmaids with flickering lamps.
Although the suggestion of the smarter girls is unfeasible at this late hour, they offer the only possible suggestion. The desperate girls should attempt to find a merchant to sell them oil.
The foresight of the wise cannot benefit those who are not ready. Individual spiritual preparedness cannot be imparted to another. Grace cannot be shared among Believers, but can only be replenished from the Source.
The foolish five heed the advice given them, but we are not told if their mission is successful. In any case, it is a fool’s errand to attempt to buy oil when the stores are closed. Those who made adequate provision can meet the groom, accompany him, and participate in the nuptial feast (Rev. 19:9). The doors are shut irreversibly, precluding the admittance of party crashers.
The foolish virgins finally return. Whether they come back with oil is irrelevant, for they are too late. The idea they will be refused admission apparently never enters their minds. The cries of the latecomers avail nothing. From behind the door of the banquet hall they hear the Master’s voice. He does not acknowledge them as participants in the bridal procession. He denies any personal relationship with them or any obligation to them.
Jesus earlier states not everyone who cries, “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven. Entry is reserved for those who do God’s will (Mt. 7:21- 22). The Lord does not neglect to hear agonizing cries, but proper preparation is necessary to find His door open. Jesus urges His disciples to be in a perpetual state of readiness (Mt. 24:44).
Only procrastination can irrevocably shut the gates of heaven. Based on the sacrifice of God’s Son, heaven has been accessible for two thousand years. But the day will come when the gates will close forever (Rev. 22: 10-12). Preparation guarantees inclusion in God’s kingdom as surely as lack of preparation guarantees exclusion.
The moral of the story is summarized in its final verse. “Watch” (gregoreite) is a call for vigilance. This term calls for continuous action and means “to be awake; spiritually alert; to be intently watchful; to give strict attention to.” Jesus warns us not to slumber but to watch (Mk. 13: 36-37).
The foolish girls enjoy grace for awhile but fail to receive God’s blessing due to lack of vigilance. Jesus equates unpreparedness with foolishness, for only a fool would miss heaven while there is a chance to enter.
While on this earth, Jesus never states the day of His return. Had He done so, Believers in every age would have been deprived of their incentive to pursue diligence and holiness. Preparations for Jesus’ arrival must be continuous.
Our spiritual lamps flicker in the winds of compromise and apathy. Many are deluded into thinking once their spiritual lamp is lit it will burn forever without replenishment. Some are satisfied with the basic lamp oil of a born-again experience and never receive the abundant supply of reserve fuel available only to those who are Spirit-filled.
There is a story told of a gardener entrusted with the care of a wondrous and immense flower garden. One day a visitor asks him when he last saw the owner. The gardener says, “I have worked here for many years but have never met him; he simply sends me my paycheck.” The amazed man says, “How immaculately you tend his garden! It is as if you expect him to come tomorrow.” The gardener replies, ‘Today, sir: today.”
Points to Ponder
1. Describe the wisdom or foolishness of the men Jesus refers to in Matthew 7:24-27. What allows some to enter the Kingdom of Heaven and what keeps others out?
2. What does Paul say should be fervent within us (Romans 12: 11)?
3. Paraphrase Peter’s thoughts regarding Jesus’ return (II Peter 3:3-4)?
4. How does Jesus address frivolity and unpreparedness (Matthew 24:36-51)?
5. Paraphrase Jesus’ answer to the man who asks Him a question in Luke 13:24-28.
6. What analogy does Jesus use to describe separating saints from sinners (Matthew 25:31-34)?
7. Describe the Rapture of the Church (I Thessalonians 4: 15-18).
8. What advice does Paul give regarding the return of Jesus (I Thessalonians 5:26)?