The Parable Of The Ten Virgins
The primary principle in biblical hermeneutics - the interpretation of Scripture - is context. Several weeks ago I mentioned the context for the ministry of Jesus Christ is first century Judaism or what is commonly called Second Temple Judaism. Jesus said repeatedly that he had come to the lost sheep of Israel. As you recall when we talked about Jesus' encounter with the Canaanite woman he mentioned the nature of his ministry at that point and went so far to say that it was not right to throw the children's food to the dogs.
Now, the context for this particular parable is Jesus' ministry to Israel but more specifically, it is a teaching given to his immediate disciples.
A common mistake in biblical interpretation is imputing a modern Christian mindset to the original audience. In other words, when the disciples asked Jesus "Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?" (Matthew 24:3), readers often assume they are talking about the end of this current age and the second coming of Jesus Christ. However, that is not what was on the mind of the disciples.
A chief characteristic of late Second Temple Judaism was the expectation that God would soon fulfill his promises to his people and the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant would be realized. There was a strong messianic expectation in the air. The disciples believed this was the reason for Jesus appearance in Galilee. They believed Jesus would restore Israel to a position of worldwide influence and cast down the enemies of the people of God. Well, that is what Jesus was all about but not according to the expectations of the disciples.
Jesus was calling Israel to relationship with God in himself. Jesus was - is - the fulfillment of all of God's promises. The outworking was different than what the first century Jewish people expected. As we see in Matthew chapter 24, part of the fulfillment involved the destruction of the Temple and indeed the destruction of the holy city itself.
This is the end that Jesus has in mind. The end of the old covenant age. The end of what God had done with his people prior to the coming of the Messiah. This end came in A.D. 70 when the prophecy of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 24 came to fruition. The generation in view extended from the time of Jesus death and resurrection to the destruction of the Temple (Matthew 24:34). During that time, the Jews were the first recipients of the gospel. Even Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, first went to the Jewish synagogue in every city that he visited. As it says in the acts of the apostles concerning the mission work in Antioch of Pisidia, Then Paul and Barnabas grew bold and said, "It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46). Nonetheless, Paul continued to present the gospel to the Jews first in every city he encountered.
Now, I don't want to belabor this point; I do want us to be aware of the context so we can understand what Jesus meant when he spoke this parable to his disciples and what he intended for them to understand.
In the interpretation of a parable, it is important to recognize that every detail is not meant to be allegorical. Indeed, in reaction to the church fathers tendency to allegorize everything, it became fashionable to suggest that each parable had a single meaning and a single message. Thus, it would be wrong to allegorize the lamps, the oil, the timing and so forth. Generally that's true. At the same time we don't want to be hemmed in by artificial rules of interpretation either.
In this case, we must keep in mind the context. Jesus is talking about the conclusion of the old covenant age and the turmoil that would surround that event. If you know the history of the first century you realize that from the time of Jesus death and resurrection to the destruction of the Temple the Roman world was in upheaval. That commotion accelerated dramatically around A.D. 66 when the Jews revolted against Roman rule. It came to a resounding conclusion in the year of the four Caesars as the Roman Empire was shaken by civil war, natural disaster and nationalistic uprisings. This is what Jesus is talking about. And what he wants his disciples to know is that they can weather the storm as they maintain a relationship with him. He doesn't tell them they will avoid the turmoil; he says they will be able to make it through the hardship. He doesn't even tell them there will be no loss of life from among his followers. But, again, the simple idea that they will be safe in relationship with him.
Thus we come to the parable of the 10 virgins.
Concerning ancient Jewish wedding customs, it will suffice to say it was typical for the bridegroom to lead a procession to the house of his bride and then bring her back to his own home. The wedding "ceremony" was really nothing more than a party, a recognition the two were to become one. There is some indication there would be a portion of the wedding party awaiting the return of the bridegroom to his home with his bride. Curiously the bride is never mentioned in this parable. That was on purpose. It reminds us fact that we must not press the details of the parable too ardently. The fact is, the 10 virgins represent the bride of Christ and it is the reason there is no specific bride mentioned in the parable.
The people of God personified as a virgin or as the bride of God is common in the Old Testament. Jesus wanted his disciples to understand the 10 virgins represent those who claim relationship with God in Jesus Christ. Five are wise and five are foolish. But all 10 are maidens who are part of the wedding party. All of them have lamps - but as we see in the parable, not all of them were fully prepared for any eventuality.
Throughout this discourse (beginning in Matthew 24:1), there has been the idea the disciples should be prepared for a lengthy span of time between Christ's resurrection and the closure of the old age. The same idea is continued here. The 10 virgins are waiting but the bridegroom does not show up. So, naturally, they fall asleep. Suddenly, there's a shout! The bridegroom is arriving! All 10 virgins awake and trim their lamps. Five failed to prepare for a lengthy wait and their lamps are out of oil. Not wanting to be in the procession with unlighted lamp's they asked the five who had made preparation for somed oil. "No" say the wise virgins. "Go buy oil in the marketplace." However, while the five unprepared virgins are gone, the bridegroom arrives and enters the house and locks the door.
When the five foolish maidens show up and knock on the door, the bridegroom says "I don't know who you are."
This is often interpreted as a circumstance taking place at the second coming of Jesus Christ. However, the context suggests otherwise. The context is the closure of the old covenant age and the situation for those who claim Christ as Savior. Remember, these are 10 virgins, 10 bridesmaids and the only distinction between them is the lack of oil or the lack of preparedness on the part of five. It would seem Jesus is emphasizing the need to be prepared at all times for the crisis of the kingdom realized, the crisis of the old age coming to a conclusion. And the best preparation - for any crisis, for any hardship, for any event - is a vital relationship with God in Jesus Christ.
Indeed, I don't think Jesus is saying the five without the oil have "lost their salvation." I don't believe he is saying they were not really in relationship with him. I think he is saying they were shut out of the peace that passes understanding as the first century crisis engulfed them. Yes they will be saved - yet as through the fire as Paul describes it in another context. But they will not have the peace and the security of those who have taken the time and effort to be thoroughly prepared.
"So, a key point is that readiness, whatever form it takes, is not something that can be achieved by a last-minute adjustment. It depends on long-term provision, and if that has been made, the wise disciple can sleep secure in the knowledge that everything is ready" (R. T. France, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, The Gospel Of Matthew).
Thorough preparation would have been to attend to the teaching of Jesus Christ and work hard to show the results of their salvation. It would have been a daily cultivation of the fruits of the spirit. It would have been sharing the gospel and living the gospel on a daily basis. In short, it would have been a lively, fruitful and real relationship with Jesus Christ. That sort of life would be "on the inside" and protected in a time of crisis. But that cannot be achieved all of a sudden. It must be a lifestyle. It must be a daily cultivation of the character Jesus Christ in your life.
On the other hand, those who were lazy about their relationship, cared little for the fruit of the Spirit or for the exercise of godliness or the work of showing the result of their salvation. The Christians in Corinth exemplify that kind of Believer. There was a tremendous amount of the world mixed into their life. And those people, though considered saints by Paul, and according to the text, Christian, would not have weathered the storm well. The storm would hit and they would not have the shelter of the house. The storm would sweep over them and they would find it very difficult to keep the faith. Why? Because they had not prepared. They had not cultivated a relationship with Jesus Christ.
I think you can see how the principle of preparedness makes an easy transfer to the modern age. I want to look at it, briefly, in two ways. First, there is the preparedness of relationship in Jesus Christ that helps us through crisis. James Dobson once said that life (for everyone) is a series of crisis. And if you do not have a sound relationship with Jesus Christ cultivated by time in his word, by prayer, by working hard to show the results of your salvation, you will not be prepared for crisis. You won't have the Christian character you need to sail through hard times with peace that passes understanding. This is something N.T. Wright talks about in one of his books titled, I think, After You Believe. So, we must be prepared, we need to be ready for whatever life might throw at us.
And it is a preparation that takes place over time. It is not something you can conjure up at the last moment. The five foolish virgins tried to prepare all at once but it didn't work. Likewise, you cannot hope to develop a sound relationship with Jesus and a Christlike character at the moment of crisis. You must be "in training" throughout our life.
There's another application I think we can make. All of us will one day pass from this life into the next. I do not want to get into a discussion about rewards in eternity but I do think there is such a thing as making it by the skin of your teeth. While the primary application of this principle takes place in this realm I think there is truth in the idea that some of us will make it into eternity so as through fire. I'm not talking about purgatory. I'm not talking about some kind of punishment after death for those in Christ. There is no punishment in eternity for those who are in Jesus Christ. But there may be different levels of reward. It's hard to understand how that could be; we tend to think if we don't get as much is the other guy we're going to be disappointed. But there is no disappointment in eternity with Jesus. So, I'm not sure how that will work except our frame of reference will be completely different and so there will be no room for disappointment even if there are different rewards for our behavior in this life. In any case, those who have not fully prepared, those who have not cultivated the rule of Jesus Christ in their life through time in the Scripture, time in prayer, time in fellowship with other believers – those folks might find their heavenly reward differs from those who did prepare.
Nevertheless, I want to leave you with the focus I believe is most important in this parable. In order to weather crisis, you must have the proper preparation. Paul says physical discipline profits a little but spiritual discipline profits much. So I encourage you; work hard to show the result of your salvation. Spend time in the word of God reading and meditating. Spend time in prayer and praise before God. Take the time to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit in your life. Think of others more highly than yourself, doing what is most beneficial for the other person even at great cost to yourself. Enjoy fellowship with other Christians looking for opportunity to express the love of Jesus Christ to each one you come in contact with. It is this kind of witness, this kind of character building that will give you peace in every situation. You will be ready for any crisis. You will be ready for any hardship. May God bless you as you pursue preparedness in Jesus Christ.
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