Prior to my pastor’s recent sermon on having faith that you’re saved even when you feel inadequate and have doubts, I was wondering about the meaning of what Jesus said in the “Parable of the 10 Virgins” in Matthew (25:1-13). Whenever this parable was brought to my attention, it bothered me, and it was on my mind prior to that sermon. Maybe God was trying to tell me that my concerns about the parable were not applicable to me, and followers of Christ like me, and that there was another meaning to it that I simply wasn’t grasping. In my 19 years of having been a Christian, I had not come to terms with this parable, which seems kind-of pathetic and embarrassing. I want to dig deeper into this parable—car to come along? Here is the parable (NIV):
“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4 The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. 6 “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ 7 “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ 9 “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. 11 “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ 12 “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’ 13 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.
The concluding verse exhorts us to keep watch always. And that is good and necessary, and is repeated elsewhere: “You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Luke 12:40; see also Matt 24:42, 44; Mark 13:35). The problem is, the young ladies weren’t keeping watch in an ordinary New Testament sense. The five that got into heaven fell asleep just like the five that didn’t get into heaven. The difference was in the oil–in their preparedness–not in their actual watchfulness (being awake, having one’s eyes open, looking toward Christ, etc.).
And the problem with this, the oil issue, is at least twofold. One, oil is commonly known to be symbolic of the Holy Spirit, which we receive from God (we don’t take it or buy it). Related to this is, (2) how much of our own work do we need to do to be saved? First, one must read and understand the parable correctly. Depending on the version I had read in the past, it wasn’t always clear to me that the five foolish virgins didn’t have any oil at all. This needs to be clear: five of the virgins brought lamps with them that were . . . empty! Who does that!? These were the foolish virgins, we’re told, but it still took a lot of time for my mind to register that someone would bother to bring lamps that didn’t have any oil. (Truly, what is the point? It’s like pushing your gasless car somewhere, expecting to drive it off later without filling it up.) For a long time I thought that the virgins in question had oil in their lamps when they left their homes, and that they didn’t bother bringing extra and thus ran out (this is the take on it that Kaiser et al present, too). But that’s not what the parable says. In any case, let’s look at the oil issues I mentioned.
If oil represents the Holy Spirit in this parable, as it does elsewhere in the Bible, then the foolish virgins didn’t have the Holy Spirit. They wanted into heaven, but they didn’t really accept God (God’s spirit); they weren’t true believers. If you are sincere in wanting to be with God, God will give you His Holy Spirit; if you just want the goodies of heaven without acknowledging God’s will, your heart is in the wrong place. So, the only work necessary is to actually believe in God and His son’s work: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent (John 6:29). And according to the parable, if you have God and His Holy Spirit you will be saved even if you get drowsy waiting. This is quite comforting, and the opposite meaning of what I had originally thought regarding this parable.
One reason why I had a bit of a hard time with this parable is that it didn’t seem logically cohesive. What I mean by that is, we believers are the church, which is referred to as Christ’s bride in the New Testament. So, why would the ten virgins (and thus the message) refer to believers, who are already behind the door in the parable (as the bride)? The virgins are attendants, not the bride; the Syriac and Vulgate versions of the New Testament make this clearer by adding in verse 10 that Christ came with his bride.
We know that the context of the parable is eschatological, that is, regarding the end times. Only two of the commentaries I have here address the actual relevance of this issue, and they appear to disagree: Enns 2008, which mentions the theological stance that the wedding takes place in heaven, while the banquet takes place on earth after Christ’s second coming, and MacDonald 1995, which seems to place the wedding and the banquet together (in heaven). The time is during the tribulation, so the virgins represent true believers and those who aren’t true. But, why use the term virgin, instead of just person? Since Christ’s bride – the church – is already in heaven (behind the door), then why are the people in the parable referred to as virgins? It makes me think Jesus is talking about the Jews during the tribulation period. Certainly his audience at the time was made up of Jews, and MacDonald (1297) refers to them as those with messianic hope.
Israel is specifically called out in Revelation 7, where during the time of the opening of the Sixth Seal a certain number of Jews will be marked as saved; that is, sealed. In the New Testament, God seals us with, and gives us, the Holy Spirit (2 Cor.s 1:22; Eph.s 1:13, 4:30). But whether or not the “virgins” refer to Jews alone, or the wedding feast takes place in heaven or on earth (or even if that has any relevance), people will indeed be saved during the tribulation and the mark of this is the seal of the Holy Spirit, just as it is prior to the tribulation. The admonition to always be ready and waiting for the Lord’s return is true at all times prior to the actual wedding banquet, announced in Revelation 19, which happens after all the seals are opened, all the bowls of judgment are emptied, and all the trumpets sounded, but before the final battle and binding of Satan (this order is according to the literal reading of Revelation).
The message to walk away with is, don’t be foolish but wise and receive the Holy Spirit, and after that keep vigilant in waiting for the king’s return. However, we can take comfort that Jesus “knew” the five virgins who did in fact drift off to sleep, but who had held on to God’s seal.
Dunn, James, and Rogerson, John. Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub Co, 2003. Print.
Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008. Print.
Kaiser, Jr., Walter C., et al. Hard Sayings of the Bible. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996. Print.
MacDonald, William. Believer’s Bible Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Pub.s, 1995. Print.
Plummer, Robert L. 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2010. Print.