Westminster Presbyterian Church
The Virgins and their Lamps
One thing that the Jewish people have on us is that they know how to throw a party. Indeed, we do, as Christians, have several special days that we celebrate—we have Christmas, we have Easter, and as American Christians, we have Thanksgiving, which, despite thoughts in our secular world, is a religious holiday in the sense that it falls back on the tradition of the Puritans that they began back with us, but most of our festivals—most of our days—are just that—they are day-long events where we celebrate for a day and the next day we get back to business as usual. But for the Jewish people, most of their festivals lasted at least a week if not longer than that—and weddings were no exception. The wedding celebration with friends would last for a full week, and there is some evidence that in certain sects of Judaism, the celebration with the immediate family would go on for a full month as they went on with celebrating this new marriage and in celebrating this new couple that has been joined together in marriage. In addition, weddings were not permitted to be scheduled in another time frame when another celebration would be going on in the Jewish culture, so that, and I quote, “so that the rejoicing of one kind would not be mixed with the rejoicing of another kind.” In other words, there is too much opportunity for us to rejoice and have fun and to enjoy this, don’t overlap them—but let’s have this here and this here and schedule appropriately.
In addition, typical weddings were prescribed to be held on Wednesdays, so that the groom would have at least three days to enjoy his bride prior to his Sabbath obligations. In addition, Scripture also relates to us that the new groom was exempted from any form of military duty so that he could be home with his wife as her husband for a full year before he would have any responsibilities back on the battlegrounds.
The typical wedding process would entail the groom and his friends, which we would refer to as the groomsmen in our culture, coming with much celebration through the streets of the town to go fetch the bride. They would come and find the bride and then they would escort the bride, along with the revelries, to the groom’s house for the marriage blessing to be placed upon the bride and the groom. The couple would then be escorted by everyone into the bridal chambers and the celebration would continue outside as the bride and the groom would begin the process of consummating their marriage. And they would only return the next morning to then continue the celebrations—they had a clear understanding that life was lived in community—that life was lived in community of the faithful, with other family, and with other believers. And when the family is grown or bonded together in such a covenantal way, they saw that it was the responsibility of the community as such to celebrate with them.
This is the context into which Jesus was born into. This is the context into which Jesus grew up. And this is the context within which Jesus is teaching the people around him. And it is in this particular context in which Jesus relates this particular kingdom parable, which we often refer to as the parable of the 10 virgins, to that of the coming groom to collect his bride. But note the broader context of these parables as well. He is talking about the second-coming. He is talking about the return of himself to collect the church as his great bride. And it is in this context that Jesus tells and relates this parable of the ten virgins.
Now Jesus begins this parable in verse 1 of chapter 25 with this language: “Now the Kingdom of Heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps…” Now we need to make a few notes here to unpackage this illustration that Jesus is using. Ten virgins have gone down to meet the bridegroom carrying lamps. Ancient Jewish custom required that there be at least 10 lamps burning as a sign of God’s witness and as a sign of God’s blessing for the marriage. So this is the context that you find these lamps being brought down.
Now typically, these were oil lamps, and these were oil lamps that would be mounted on a tall staff or a stick so that they could be held up or shown into the room to light the celebration. In addition, the virgins, and the language of virginity is Biblical language that is symbolic of spiritual purity as well as physical purity. The bride of Christ is called to make herself ready, to make herself clean, to be prepared and ready—that we are to be clean before our groom. And this is something that we should not miss as Jesus is teaching us this parable. And note too, as Jesus relates that, that they took their lamps. Some of the variants in the Greek text go as far as to say that they took “their own” lamps to meet him. In other words, the lamps that they had were not lamps that they were borrowing from the bridal chamber or the bridal party, but these were their own personal lamps that they brought and were responsible to bring.
Yet in verses two through four, Jesus now introduces to us the problem of this parable. For their were ten virgins, but in this language of the ten virgins, Jesus relates that five of them were foolish and five of them were wise. The wise ones brought a flask of oil and the foolish ones brought none, apparently expecting that the others in their fellowship would provide them with the oil that they needed to light and to shine at the celebration.
Now we need to stop here and make a couple of observations. First, note that there is no mention of the bride in this parable whatsoever. In fact, it is implied as we read through this parable, that the only ones that are in the bridal chamber and celebrating with the Lord as he comes are the wise virgins that are prepared. And two: note too, the implication that the groom is gone and has been gone for a long time. It is not even really known exactly when he is going to return nor is it known when the wedding is going to take place, we only know that said wedding will take place when said groom returns to have that celebration.
Now, note the difference between these groups of virgins: one is ready and one is not. One is in faith expecting and anticipating the return of the groom and the others are not. It is almost as if they are acting as if they really don’t believe that the groom is going to show up on this particular night. Beloved, a lamp without oil is useless unless you don’t really expect that you are going to need to use it.
I remember when I was in the Boy Scouts, one of the most common things that I forgot—you know that Boy Scouts are always supposed to “Be Prepared”—one of the most common things that I forgot to take with me on my campouts was matches. You know, and that wasn’t such a big deal when you were going out with a group of other Boy Scouts, because invariably one of the others had plenty of matches to share. Yet, when you are going out alone, if you expect that you are going to have to light a fire, you darn well better be ready with some matches or a really good tinderbox and such.
You see, these virgins were attending and unprepared but there is a sense in their unprepared-ness, that they don’t think that they will have to use those lamps. There is a sense, I think, if we kind of read between the lines in this parable, that this vigil, if you will, of waiting for the bridegroom to come, has probably been going on for a long time. These virgins may have begun by bringing their oil with them and gotten lazy.
Now, with that being said, and knowing that Jesus is telling us this parable to guide our minds to the hope and the anticipation of his return to collect his church, I wonder how often, as Christians, we end up in similar situations. I wonder how often we, when come to faith, have all of the excitement and joy and anticipation of the return of our Lord, yet, when we have been doing “the Christian thing” if you will, for a while, we get dry and we sometimes act as we don’t really believe that there is any reason to look to the sky. Beloved, there is this sense in scripture—this anticipation, that as Christians is supposed to mark our lives—we are to be a people, yes, going about the duties and the tasks of the day, but at the same time taking those quick glances, wondering, “could the groom be coming?” “Could the groom be coming soon” and being ready and prepared for the return of that groom.
Also you see these virgins as they are there, these virgins are acting as if they are saying, “I really don’t believe that he is going to come tonight, but I am still a virgin, I am still dressed for the occasion, I still have my lamp, and I will be surrounded by others who certainly will have oil with them—I will just use their oil. How often, too, we run into Christians who fill our churches and they have this sense that their salvation is based on the good things that they have done or the good things that they are doing, or simply in the fact that their role is in the church. And beloved, that too is a lie, it originates in the pits of hell, and as one preacher said, smells of smoke. Beloved, salvation comes through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Note that these virgins were responsible for bringing their own lamps and their own oil into the fellowship.
With that in mind, let us explore this parable further, because as we recognize this whole situation, this whole problem, this whole wisdom and folly, if you will, revolves around the presence of oil or whether or not they brought their flask of oil. The word here in the Greek is of a specific kind of oil, it is not general oil, but it is oil that comes from an olive. Now, I know that was a common oil that people used in the day, but there were other things that one could get oil from and there are other Greek words that refer to oil from different kinds of things. And indeed, olive oil was a common oil that was burned in lamps, but scripturally, when you go through your Old Testament, one of the things that you will find is that olive oil was the kind of oil that God prescribed for the anointing of his people. It is the oil that is prescribed for blessing and it is the oil that God uses as an illustration when you get to the book of Zechariah, for the outpouring of his Spirit into believers. There is a sense here, I believe, that Jesus is getting at, that you have a contrast between in the virgins. You have the contrast in the virgins who have oil and in those who do not have oil. People in church who have oil and people in church who do not have oil. People in church who have the Spirit, surrounded by people in church who do not have the Spirit of God within them.
I wonder how often we assume that if you are a virgin, prepared for the wedding in all visible ways, that you are filled with oil in your lamp as well. Indeed, I think that this is one of the great lessons that we need to learn, that we need to discern in our own lives, and ask ourselves, what the source of our oil will be? Is the source of our oil going to be the friends that we surround ourselves with? Is the source of our oil going to be our own works? Or is the source of our oil the one who can provide life-giving oil, the Lord Jesus Christ, himself.
I plead with you, I beg with you, to examine yourself closely, and to ask yourself this question, “Where is your oil?”
Thus, as we see this story going on, though, Jesus continues and relates, that we see these virgins, awaiting the master, they don’t know when he is coming, and they begin to fall asleep. And they begin to slumber. Sometimes when people have read this parable, they have read this parable as these virgins going out to meet the bridegroom, to see them walking the streets anticipating and waiting, to greet him as he is coming. Yet that is difficult in terms of reading this because none of us would expect these virgins to fall asleep on the street corners. But instead, as they went out, we need to read that as they went out from their homes and into the bridal chambers, awaiting the celebration to take place. Waiting for the groom to come, and it is there that they fall asleep, it is there that they close their eyes and rest, yet, set a watch. One waiting to vigil through the night, waiting to see if the groom would come. And indeed, that time comes.
Now note, when we read this we need not read this with American eyes. When we see midnight, we need not think twelve AM, they had no concept of that in Jesus’ day. But literally, the Greek says, “in the middle of the night” or “at the mid-point” of the night, whenever that unexpectedly takes place, the groom then arrives. And the ladies begin trimming and preparing their lamps. The ladies take their lamps and they begin lighting them and getting them ready for the celebration to take place, but something happens—the ladies who have oil, their lamps light up and they are able to trim them and have them ready, but those who do not have oil have nothing but the wick to light. Have you ever tried to light an oil lamp with no oil in the lamp? The wick might take a spark for a moment or two, but it just doesn’t last very long.
I think this is interesting, because the foolish ones go to the wise ones and say, “give us your oil”—give us some of your oil and share with us. And the reason that I think this is interesting is because for the longest time I used to think that what is going on here, in good Christian charity, why couldn’t these wise virgins share with the others. Certainly there would have been enough at least to get the party started in the night. Certainly the groom, being the Lord Jesus Christ, would have understood their charity to share with the others.
It did not strike me for quite a long time that these wise virgins might not have been able to share, that they might have been unable to do so. For, you see, the oil of their lamp, I would argue, does not belong to them. It is not theirs to give, or to receive, or to take away, but belongs to the master. Here is the reason that I would support that: if you look to the parable that Jesus tells before this, and if you look to the parable that Jesus tells after this, you find a striking similarity. In both of those cases, and I would argue, all three of these cases, you find stewards that have been entrusted with the master’s property while the master has been away. And then when the master returns, they are called to account for how they used said master’s property.
In light of that, you find that these virgins have all been entrusted with an amount of oil—a flask of oil—that has been given to them for the express purpose of the celebration of the wedding supper. Yet five of these virgins have been good stewards, five of these virgins have kept their flasks ready and been prepared for the return of the bridegroom. Yet five have not brought theirs with them. Whether it has been because they have been lazy and left it on the wayside, or whether it has been because they have abused their responsibility and used said oil for other things, assuming that the bridegroom would never come. It does not matter—these virgins have been entrusted with the oil for a purpose, and that purpose is the celebration of the wedding supper of the Lamb. And it is not theirs to give away, to squander, or to share with those who have abused their own gift that was given.
So the bridegroom arrives, and those virgins who were prepared went and met him and went with him into the marriage feast, the door being locked shut behind them. And this, beloved, leads us to the major point of this parable. Not only can you not trust your salvation to hanging out with believers if you will, and that you must have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. But, two, the timing that Bridegroom will come—it has not been given for us to know and you must be ready. Beloved, there is no second-chance theology. There is no, “whoops, I got things wrong now that you have come and I am standing in judgment, let me bow and accept you now.” We are given this life to make ourselves ready—to be prepared as the virgins waiting on the wedding feast to take place. And Jesus Christ is the master for whom we must be ready. He has entrusted us with his Spirit, he has given believers his Spirit as through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And ultimately, eternally, those to whom he has given life, he will bring to himself.
But how often our lives are filled with those who think they have some oil, yet have squandered it for other things. Who think that they don’t need the oil to stand before the Lord Jesus Christ in judgment. Who think that the concept of being indwelt with the Holy Spirit is something that has more to do with attendance in church and less to do with your attendance upon the Lord Jesus Christ. The question then, for us, is “are you ready?” Are you the wise virgin with your lamps filled with the master’s oil, ready to celebrate the coming of our Lord? Are you ready? But know this, if you are not, if your lamp is empty like that of the foolish virgins. If your life is moral and just, if your attendance is perfect in church, if you do good works and have served in the church even for years yet do not have a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior, your lamp is empty. And he will say to you through a closed door, “I have never known you.”
Beloved, while there is life, while there is breath in your lungs, there is opportunity to pray that the Lord Jesus Christ will not leave you behind. That the Lord Jesus Christ would fill your life with oil and that you might be admitted to the wedding feast. But beloved, know this as well, while there is breath in your lungs, there is the opportunity to share that good news with someone else, whether it be a friend, a family member, a co-worker, or someone you might meet on a street corner, there is that opportunity that they too might be brought into the wedding feast of Lamb. Be like that wise virgin. But my prayer to you is that unlike these wise virgins that are described in this parable, be ready and willing, when you see others showing up without their oil, to speak the truth and say, “go get it now and do not wait until it is too late.”