The first thing to say about the parable of the wise and foolish virgins is that it is plainly a continuation of the thought of the previous paragraphs. The conclusion of the parable, its application, as stated in v. 13 – “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour,” that is the day or hour of Christ’s return – repeats the similar exhortations of 24:42 and 44 and the point of the story of the farmer’s servant that concludes chapter 24. The Lord is continuing his teaching about his return and the need of his disciples to be alert, constantly watchful, because they do not and cannot know when he will return. The parable itself elaborates the division between those who are ready and those who are not which has already been introduced in 24:37-41 and 45-51. It is essential to be ready now because, if caught unawares by the Lord’s return, it will be too late then to make proper preparations.
v.1 The NIV’s “at that time” is simply the Greek adverb, “then.” It links what follows to the time of the Lord’s return which has been the theme of the previous paragraphs.
We are somewhat handicapped in our interpretation of this parable by the fact that we know comparatively little about wedding customs in Judea in the Lord’s day. Apparently, the ceremony was in several parts: a procession from the house of the groom to that of the bride or to some other place where the wedding occurred; then a procession, usually to the groom’s home; then a great feast that could last for days. These young women were bridesmaids; they belonged to the bride’s party, but not in our modern sense. Their role apparently was to greet the bridegroom along his route and escort him the last part of the festive procession. In this particular case, it was a torchlit procession. The word the NIV translates “lamps,” should be rendered “torches.” [Morris, 620]
Clearly enough, the point of the parable is that Christ is the bridegroom, a comparison already drawn earlier in the Gospel, in 9:15 and the procession is the Second Coming.
v.2 We should probably attribute no significance to the fact that there was an equal division between the wise and foolish. To find meaning in such minor details turns a parable into an allegory.
v.3 The foolish virgins had oil on their rags, as v. 8 will indicate, but they had not brought oil sufficient to resoak the rags and keep their torches lit. Even a well-soaked rag would only burn for some 15 minutes. The wise virgins brought additional oil in flasks so that they would be sure to be able to keep their torches burning.
v.5 As we said last week, a delay in the Lord’s return is predicted in 24:48 and will appear again in 25:19. No doubt, when Matthew wrote his Gospel, there were already Christians wondering why the Lord had not already returned. In any case, life goes on. All the virgins fall asleep. One can’t always remain awake. There is no fault in falling asleep. Both the wise and the foolish virgins fell asleep. The fault is in not having taken precautions so that one would be ready whenever the bridegroom returned.
v.6 Is there any significance to the fact that the call came at midnight? Augustine thought so. He thought that the reason why in the parable the bridegroom arrives at midnight is precisely because midnight is the moment of least awareness. [ACC, ad loc.] All through this section of the Gospel the Lord’s emphasis has fallen on the fact that the Lord will come when he not expected and that we must keep watch because we do not know when the Lord will return. So the bridegroom’s arrival at midnight underscores that exhortation. In the parable the bridegroom comes in the middle of the night, at a time he is least expected, at the time when people are sleepy and not thinking at all about holy things and, in particular, about the return of Christ. To be ready then, they must have prepared themselves beforehand.
v.7 “Trimming their lamps” here means re-oiling the torches.
v.9 The response of the wise virgins can sound like selfish unconcern for others, but, in the parable, it reminds us that we cannot count on another’s readiness. In any case, the bridegroom had to be welcomed. It would be a disaster if, by dividing the available oil, the result would be that all the torches went out. In any case, the purpose of the parable is to teach a lesson about spiritual readiness, not a lesson about compassion for the foolish.
v.11 The word the NIV translates “Sir” is kurios, the word for Lord. It is a question of interpretation whether we should render it “Lord” and understand that the Lord Jesus is sliding back from the parable to the reality that it is illustrating. In that case, with “Lord” he is speaking of his own deity as something that even these foolish virgins were quite willing to confess. But it is possible that kurios should be translated simply “Sir,” and be considered nothing more than part of the local color of the parable.
v.12 The “knowledge” referred to here is, of course, not the knowledge of information. The Lord knows these virgins in that sense – that’s why he doesn’t let them in – he knows them all too well. As so often in the Bible, here “to know” means to love, to have a relationship with, not simply to have information about. This statement harkens back to the one near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, in 7:23, and shockingly spoken to a group sure of their welcome on the Great Day: “Away from me you evil doers. I never knew you.”
The parable of the wise and foolish virgins has long been viewed, at least in the Protestant and Puritan tradition, as one of if not the Bible’s most emphatic and important statement on the subject of nominal faith. That entire tradition, of which we are descendants here at Faith Presbyterian Church, saw this parable as the Bible’s supreme study of the difference between true and nominal Christianity. By nominal Christianity I mean Christianity in name only; a Christianity that appears to be genuine but proves to be only an imitation and so a Christian faith that will not stand scrutiny at the Last Judgment.
I have a book on my shelf entitled The Parable of the Ten Virgins by Thomas Shepard. Shepard was an English Puritan who came eventually to Massachusetts where he pastored a church and contributed substantially to the establishment of Harvard College. The book was born as sermons Shepard preached in his church during the famous antinomian controversy that broke out in colonial New England in the middle of the 17th century. Antinomianism, as you know, is the view that if there is an agreement with the gospel of Christ in the mind, one can be a true, a real Christian, a saved man or woman, even if he or she does not live a Christian life. In these sermons on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, sermons that run to 635 pages of small type, Shepard hammers away at the fact the foolish virgins thought that they would be let into the feast but were refused entrance. They were like the wise virgins in every outward way, but they were shut out of the feast. A century later Jonathan Edwards preached 10 sermons on this same text and made the same point.
Surely that is the correct, the obvious, understanding and application of this parable. It begins, and very emphatically, with an account of what these two groups, who will eventually be separated eternally, have in common now. It is precisely the similarity between the two groups of virgins that through the ages has arrested the attention of serious Christians as they read the parable.
Clearly the Lord means us to understand that all the virgins are church members. This parable is about us, about the members of the Christian church, about those who have been baptized into the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This parable is not about, it does not raise the question of the atheist or the spiritually and theologically indifferent who never goes to church, or the practitioner of some other religion, a Muslim or a Hindu or a Jew. No, these virgins, all of them, all ten, are the people who not only say they are Christians but are committed enough members of the church that they know what denomination they belong to. They are men and women who have professed faith in Jesus Christ. They know who the bridegroom is, they are part of the group that goes out to meet him, they have their torches, they want a seat at the banquet and, what is more, they expect to have a seat there!
Nominal Christians invariably think that they are what they claim to be, real Christians. Nominal Christians never say, “I’m only a nominal Christian; I’m really a Christian in name only; I act in some ways like a Christian but I’m not one at heart.” Oh, no. These foolish virgins were completely surprised by the outcome of that fateful night. They discovered, at first to their embarrassment, that they were not equipped as they should have been, but by the time they retrieved some oil, the event had passed them by irretrievably. The burden of the Lord’s parable is precisely the fact that nothing visibly separates the wise virgins from the foolish until the end. The difference between them cannot be seen until the end. They appear to be the same until at the end the foolish virgins reveal their unpreparedness and are cast out of the feast.
Clearly, the fact that the Lord says so plainly here, so emphatically that many who call him Lord and who expect to sit down at the wedding banquet will, in fact, be eternally rejected is designed to make us very careful, thoughtfully, intentionally careful not to rest anything on the fact that we belong to the Christian church, think ourselves Christians, and are taken to be Christians by others. That could have been said about all the virgins and five of them were shut out at the last. The Lord’s entire point in telling this parable is to warn us to be ready precisely because so many who profess their allegiance to him are not ready and will not be ready. Profession, in and of itself, never saved anyone. I have a book on my shelf entitled Damned through the Church. The arresting title is a reminder that being in the church, belonging to her membership, attending her services, even accepting in your mind the truth of her doctrine of salvation, that these things in and of themselves are the guarantee of nothing. If you believe that the fact that you are a Christian church member will assure you a place at the wedding feast, you are gravely mistaken. That was the mistake the foolish virgins made.
But no one can read this parable without asking the question: what then is the difference between the wise and the foolish virgins? Wherein lay the great difference between them; a difference so great it made an irrevocable and eternal separation between the two groups of virgins? And that is the same thing as asking: what is the oil? What does it stand for?
Obviously everything depends upon the oil in the Lord’s parable of the wise and foolish virgins; the oil the wise virgins carried with them in flasks and the oil the foolish virgins ran out of at the crucial moment. The oil means everything to those who have it; it means the loss of everything for those who do not have it. For those who haven’t enough oil, everything else that they have, everything else that they do, counts for nothing. The door is shut against them and, we may presume, given the connection of thought, like the foolish servant in the previous little parable – that at the end of chapter 24 – they will be assigned a place with the hypocrites where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
There are broadly three answers to this question; three explanations of the meaning of the oil in this parable. The first is that the oil is simply a detail of the story and doesn’t stand for anything in particular. It is just part of the local color of the parable, a parable that in its entirety is making the point that we must be ready. The oil has no special significance. It is the parable as a whole that makes the point the Lord is after. [France, 350] But that leaves us with no answer to the most pressing, the most obvious question arising from the parable. What does it mean to be prepared? Surely that question is given an answer in the material before and after this parable.
The second explanation of the oil is that it stands for the Holy Spirit and, in particular, the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration, of granting new birth to dead sinners. If no one can enter the kingdom of heaven unless he is born again, then what is absent, what is missing in these foolish virgins must be the new birth by the Holy Spirit. It is pointed out that oil elsewhere in the Bible represents the Holy Spirit and his ministry. [John Gerstner Sr., The Parable of the Ten Virgins, Ligonier Audio Tapes, 6 lectures]
For example, on several occasions Jesus himself was said to be anointed with the Holy Spirit – anointing, in those days, was performed by pouring oil upon the head. And Christians are said to be anointed as well, as Paul says.
“God anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” [2 Cor. 1:21]
In both cases, anointing — pouring oil — is used as a picture of the Holy Spirit coming upon a person and doing his work in a person.
But the third explanation of the oil seems more faithful to the context and the meaning of the parable in its context. In the material before and after this parable, the emphasis falls on the obedience of the true follower of Jesus Christ, his or her love and service of the Lord. In the parable that immediately follows this one, the parable of the talents, the emphasis will fall on the believer’s service of the Lord and in the account of the Last Judgment, at the end of chapter 25, the emphasis falls on the love and kindness that believers showed to others. In the material immediately before this parable of the wise and foolish virgins, 24:45-51, again there is an emphasis on a servant’s faithful obedience and service or contrarily, his failure to perform his master’s will.
What is more, the striking similarity between this parable and the last paragraphs of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7:15-27, again underscores the importance of doing or failing to do the Master’s will. In Matthew 7:23 Christ tells the self-deluded nominal Christians “I never knew you” precisely because, though they did many things that appeared to make them Christians, they did not do the will of his Father in heaven. And in the paragraph that immediately follows that section, the final paragraph of the Sermon on the Mount, we read of the difference between wise and foolish builders. There too there is a division between the wise and the foolish. The wise man, the man who builds his house upon a rock, is just that man who hears the words of Jesus and does them. It is the doing of Christ’s words that separate the wise from the foolish both there in the Sermon on the Mount and here in the parable of the ten virgins. [Moises Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning, 156-157] Those paragraphs at the end of the Sermon on the Mount and this parable of the wise and foolish virgins are parallel texts; they seem obviously to be talking about the same thing.
All of this makes almost certain, in my mind, that we should understand the difference between the nominal and the true believer, the difference that separates the wise virgins from the foolish, the difference that explains why the foolish were shut out of the marriage feast, to be love and good works. We should understand the oil to represent love, obedience, and good works. This is, by the way, the way Augustine, Chrysostom, and other early church fathers took the passage.
So here, as in many other places in the Bible, we are reminded that true faith in Christ works. True faith in Christ produces love and good deeds. If we love Christ we will keep his commandments, love one another, serve his cause. These foolish virgins went through the outward motions of loyalty to Christ, but they did not do his will, they did not love others in his name, they did not serve the Lord’s cause, they did not obey his commandments. For all their appearance as Christians they lacked the love and good deeds that are the indelible mark of living faith and the new birth.
So, as a summons to be ready, to keep watch, this text is a summons to serve the Lord, to do his will, to keep his commandments as faithful servants, loving him and others in his name. That is how true followers of the Lord Jesus distinguish themselves from those – and the church has always had number of them in her membership – who follows Jesus in name only. Now Alexander Moody Stuart, the great Scot preacher of the 19th century reminds that
“Some people think there are fifteen virgins instead of ten – the wise, the foolish, and those who are neither; but the Lord says there were only ten.” [Memoir, 252]
People in the church are always tempted to create a third group, a middle group, and to find themselves in that middle group. They certainly don’t want to be foolish virgins and to be shut out at the Last Day. But they are not sure that they want to take their faith as seriously, to make it so dominating an influence in their lives as do the serious Christians that they know. But the Bible is unrelenting, Jesus is unrelenting in refusing to admit the existence of this hypothetical group in the middle, this third group between the wise and the foolish. One is always one or the other, wise or foolish. There is not a third type of person. So the challenge of this parable is to find oneself in one group or the other, among the wise or among the foolish. And if you want to locate yourself, find out what group you belong to, what questions should you ask? What test should you apply to yourself?
Well, surprisingly, the first test and the foremost test will not be to consider whether you are, in fact, obeying the Lord and doing his will. We said that the oil stood for good works, so it would be natural to suppose that we should look to see if there are good works visible in our lives. And to be sure, we must do that. But looking for good works is no easy thing. It is easy enough to find them if we want to find them; even nominal Christians can find good works. After all, who’s to say which are the good works that divide the wise from the foolish virgins? Jesus doesn’t say. Nominal Christians do some nice things and real Christians feel all too keenly the failures to serve the Lord and their neighbors. Paul even says that if he gives all his money to the poor and gives up his life to the flames and doesn’t have love he is nothing. Giving all your money to the poor would certainly qualify in most people’s minds as love and good works, but if it is not done with Christian love and for love and from love, Paul says it wouldn’t count as the kind of Christian obedience that separate the wise virgins from the foolish. What makes works good and obedience true, in other words, is not always visible.
No, the real difference, the difference in obedience, in love, in good works, is far better discerned as a difference in motive, in desire, in the love and passion of the heart. It is that heart commitment that made the wise virgins careful to carry the extra oil. Here is the test: how much does it cause you to shudder that the same one who says “I am the door” will say to many who were members of his church, “The door is shut”? Do you love Christ and love his salvation so much that you can’t bear the thought that you might fail him and he might shut the door against you?
How deeply does it concern you to realize from this parable and other teaching like it in the Bible that many who thought themselves saved, thought themselves Christians will hear the Savior say, “I don’t know you”?
Ere night that gate may close and seal thy doom,
Then the last low, long cry, “No room, no room,
No room, no room!” O woeful cry, “No room!”
Does that thought send a shudder down your spine? Are you sure, more sure than you are sure of anything else, that this cannot, must not, will not be true of you? Are you concerned that it might be true but also so committed to Christ and his salvation that you know it is not, not because you are perfectly obedient and faithful, but because your life is from the inside out so bound up with Christ and his life.
In a great sermon preached in the morning of the 23rd of October, 1881, Alexander Whyte appealed to his congregation in these words:
“Have you laid on [Christ] your sins one by one? Does he bear in his body any marks of yours? Are there not stripes on his flesh that no sins but yours could have put there? My brethren, have your feet stood on that spot beside your scapegoat? Have you laid on him your iniquity? Have you made it impossible for him to say, ‘I never knew you.’?” [Sermons of Alexander Whyte 1881-1882, 82]
It is the man or the woman who knows Jesus Christ in that intimate and sacred way; it is that man or woman whose works will be motivated by love for Christ and thanksgiving for Christ and his salvation. It will be that man or woman for whom the salvation of Christ is life itself. It will be that Christian who will hate the thought of being a Christian in name only and will strive to be a Christian in truth: in thought, in word, and in deed. It is that virgin, that church member who will have the extra oil and be prepared to welcome the bridegroom when he comes again. It is the one who can’t bear the thought that he might be numbered among those against whom the door is shut, who will live that life of love and service that is the mark of those who will certainly have a seat reserved for them at the banquet of eternal life.