Thus, for example, we will not be getting into fanciful interpretations of what the numbers ten or five might mean with respect to the virgins, or talk about whether or not the oil stands for something. Jesus did not clearly attach any important meaning to such details, and neither shall we. So, without further ado, let's make our way through this parable verse by verse.
NKJ Matthew 25:1 Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.
As He had done in the Parable of the Wedding Feast (in Matt. 22:1-14), so here again Jesus makes use of the bridegroom metaphor to refer to Himself as the Messiah. The metaphor is used this way in a number of places in Scripture. For example, in the Old Testament, Hosea spoke of the days of the coming Messiah by means of this metaphor:
NKJ Hosea 2:19-20 I will betroth you to Me forever; yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, in lovingkindness and mercy; 20 I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, and you shall know the LORD.
Then, later, John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah, took up this imagery to describe both the ministry of the Messiah and his own relationship to that ministry:
NKJ John 3:25-30 Then there arose a dispute between some of John's disciples and the Jews about purification. 26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified -- behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him!' 27 John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven. 28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, 'I am not the Christ,' but, 'I have been sent before Him.' 29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”
And then, of course, Jesus also used this imagery elsewhere to refer to Himself:
NKJ Matthew 9:14-15 Then the disciples of John came to Him [Jesus], saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
This imagery can also be found in the teaching of the early Church. For example, the Apostle Paul used this imagery in a way similar to that of John the Baptist to describe his own ministry for Christ:
NKJ 2 Corinthians 11:2 For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.
This imagery was also used in the revelation received by the Apostle John while on the island of Patmos, in which he saw a vision of the return of Christ:
NKJ Revelation 19:6-9 And I heard, as it were, the voice of a great multitude, as the sound of many waters and as the sound of mighty thunderings, saying, “Alleluia! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns! 7 Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready.” 8 And to her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints. 9 Then he said to me, “Write: 'Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb!' And he said to me, 'These are the true sayings of God.'”
Of course, in the passage before us today, Jesus is also making use of the additional imagery of the maids who await the coming of the bridegroom and of the following celebration.
D.A. Carson helpfully describes the first century background for this imagery:
The setting is fairly clear from what we know of the marriage customs of the day. Normally the bridegroom with some close friends left his home to go to the bride's home, where there were various ceremonies, followed by a procession through the streets – after nightfall – to his home. The ten virgins may be bridesmaids who have been assisting the bride; and they expect to meet the groom as he comes from the bride's house, though this is uncertain. Everyone in the procession was expected to carry his or her own torch. Those without a torch would be assumed to be party crashers or even brigands. The festivities, which might last several days, would formally get underway at the groom's house. (EBC, Vol. 8, p. 513)
In the context of this passage, Jesus is using imagery that reflects these practices in order to refer to His second coming. Thus the ten virgins represent those who await His return at the end of the age, at which time the celebration will begin.
NKJ Matthew 25:2-4 Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish. 3 Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.
Notice here that the important point is not how many virgins there were – ten – or how many of the virgins were wise as opposed to how many were foolish – five each – but rather simply that some were wise and some were foolish. And the difference between the wise and foolish virgins is seen in how prepared they were for the coming of the bridegroom. Those who were wise cared about the role they had been given, which was to be ready to shine their lights when the bridegroom arrived, so they made sure not only that they brought their lamps but also that they brought oil to put in them. Those who were foolish, however, really didn't care enough to be ready, so they brought their lamps but didn't bring any oil to put in them.
Now, it would seem that all of them claimed to care about the wedding and the coming of the bridegroom. Otherwise why were they there in the first place? And why did they bother to bring their lamps? But as we shall see further on, not all who claim to be friends of the bridegroom truly are.
NKJ Matthew 25:5 But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept.
There are two points in this verse of which we should take special notice.
First, Jesus says that the bridegroom was “delayed.” This is important because Jesus is telling His disciples in advance that His return will be delayed from their point of view. In doing so, He has warned all of us that this will be the case, so we should not be surprised that Jesus hasn't come back yet. This is one reason why later in his ministry Peter didn't want believers in the early Church to be surprised that Jesus hadn't come back yet, and we too would do well to remember his words:
NKJ 2 Peter 3:1-12a Beloved, I now write to you this second epistle (in both of which I stir up your pure minds by way of reminder), 2 that you may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior, 3 knowing this first: that scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, 4 and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation.” 5 For this they willfully forget: that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of water and in the water, 6 by which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water. 7 But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word, are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men. 8 But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9 The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. 11 Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, 12 looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God....
Yet Peter was simply repeating the lessons he learned from Jesus, who has prepared us for this delay, and He warns us in this parable to be ready for His return throughout the period of delay.
Second, notice that “they all slumbered and slept.” That is, both the wise and the foolish virgins slept. This means that we cannot read anything negative into this detail, especially since Jesus indicates nowhere in the parable that this was a problem. As John Piper observes in his treatment of this verse:
All ten slept, not just the foolish. This is not sleeping on the job of life. Sleeping is part of the job. What sleeping signifies in this parable is simply the ordinary activities of life. We are not called to go up on a mountain and gaze idly into the sky as we wait for Jesus. We are called to do our work. Then rest. Then do some more work. Blessed is the servant whom the master finds doing his work when he comes (Matthew 24:45). All ten slept because sleep is part of the normal rhythm of life that we should follow as we work and rest and wait for Jesus. (Jesus Christ, the Bridegroom, Past and Future)
I agree that the issue isn't whether or not they slept when they were tired. The issue is whether or not they were ready and whether or not they were ready at all times, even when they were awakened by the coming of the bridegroom. This becomes clear as we look at the rest of the parable.
NKJ Matthew 25:6-9 And at midnight a cry was heard: “Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!” 7 Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9 But the wise answered, saying, “No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.”
The wise virgins should not be seen here as being selfish, but rather as being just what Jesus has called them – wise. And this can be seen in the fact they they are prepared to shine their lights. The reason that they will not share with the foolish virgins is that they cannot share with them. For they are supposed to be prepared for the bridegroom, and if they allow the foolish virgins to create the same problem for them that they themselves are facing, then no one will be ready for the bridegroom. In other words, the wise virgins are not driven by selfish interests but by the interests of the bridegroom. And they are not going to take part in the foolishness of those who are unconcerned about the bridegroom and who are thus not ready to meet him as they should be.
This teaches us that each one of us is individually accountable to be ready for Jesus' return. And as much as we might like to make others ready, we cannot. Each one is responsible to be ready for himself or herself. This accountability is also quite clearly emphasized by our Lord Jesus in what He says next, for He goes on to describe what happens to both the wise and the foolish virgins.
NKJ Matthew 25:10 And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut.
Those who are ready get to take part in the celebration, but those who are not ready will be shut out. I think Vernon C. Grounds captures the application of this passage well when he writes:
George Morrison, one of Scotland's most popular preachers in the early 20th century, was known for a sermon titled, “The Ever-Open Door.” And on his deathbed he exclaimed, “It's open for me now, and I'm going through.” As a believer, he surely did go through the door into glory. That door won't always be open, however. Someday the door of grace will close and unbelievers will be shut out of God's presence forever.
The eloquent English evangelist George Whitefield (1714-1770) once preached on the text, “. . . and the door was shut” (Mt. 25:10). One man in the audience was overheard saying to another, “So what? Another door will open.” But as Whitefield continued preaching, he said, “There may be someone here who is careless and self-satisfied, and who thinks, 'What does it matter if the door is shut? Another will open.' Yes, it will--the door to the bottomless pit, the door to hell!”
When time runs out, and God shuts the door of salvation, the door to doom, darkness, and despair will open. But today, if you trust in Jesus Christ, you enter the still wide-open door into eternal life. Have you walked through that door? (February 7, 1996, entry of Our Daily Bread)
That is a point I hope we will all consider seriously as we think about this parable, for the Lord Jesus is telling the parable to warn us even now that, although His second coming is delayed, we never know when it will happen, or when our time will run out while we are waiting for it. This is why Jesus is so loving as He continues to warn us and goes on to tell us of the plight of the foolish ones.
NKJ Matthew 25:11-12 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, “Lord, Lord, open to us!” 12 But he answered and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.”
This verse reflects a previous, similar teaching of Jesus, which is found in the Sermon on the Mount. And it is one of the most frightening passages in Scripture!
NKJ Matthew 7:21-23 Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. 22 Many will say to Me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?” 23 And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!”
The point of both of these passages is that many may claim to know the bridegroom – the Lord Jesus Christ – but that doesn't mean that they truly know Him. And the difference between those who truly know Him and those who don't in this parable is seen in their readiness for His coming. There will be many professing believers who will be surprised in that day!
I am reminded of a saying of John Newton, the writer of the classic Christian hymn, “Amazing Grace”:
If I ever reach heaven I expect to find three wonders there: first, to meet some I had not thought to see there; second, to miss some I had expected to see there; and third, the greatest wonder of all, to find myself there. (As cited here)
I agree that it will indeed be a wonder that any of us will be there, but I don't think we need to worry about whether or not we will be there so long as we are trusting in Christ and looking for His return. To be sure, He does give us this parable as a warning, but it is also an encouragement for those of us who really do trust in Him. For we will also take seriously the primary lesson of this parable, as Jesus goes on to state it.
NKJ Matthew 25:13 Watch [γρηγορέω, grēgoreúō] therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.
Once again Jesus stresses what He had earlier told the disciples, namely that no one knows the day or the hour of His return (recall Matt. 24:36). And here is an important reason to “watch” for His return.
The word translated watch here is grēgoreúō, which means “literally watch, be or keep awake (MK 13.34)” and “figuratively be watchful, vigilant, alert (MT 24.42)” (Friberg #5683, BibleWorks).
Thus, Jesus is saying that His true disciples will live their lives as those who are prepared for His return, always vigilant, always alert, always seeking to do what He has called us to do as we wait. And this includes most especially seeking to fulfill the Great Commission by taking the Gospel to a lost and dying world.
As Richard Bauckham has written, “The delay of the parousia [the second coming] is filled with the mission of the church” (as cited by Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, p. 518).
Conclusion: Just as the virgins were supposed to have had their lamps ready to shine, so we are to shine for Jesus. As He also told the disciples in the Sermon on the Mount:
NKJ Matthew 5:14-16 You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.
This is the way we must live so as to be ready for His return! And if we are living this way, we shall look forward to his return with joy! Let us, therefore, trust in His enabling grace to make us faithful servants as we look for His coming. Let us pray that He will make us those who may say with faith and joy, “Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).