Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

178. The Ten Virgins (Matt. 25:1-13; Luke 12:35-38)

This parable and the other two in Matthew 25 that go with it form the logical conclusion to the Olivet Prophecy. That discourse was not intended simply to satisfy the curiosity of some of the apostles, or of more recent disciples, regarding dramatic events in the end of the age. Its main purpose was to impart admonition and exhortation to those specially involved in the events it described. Filling out the knowledge of watchers for the Lord's return, it imparts greater reality to what is shadowy and unclear, and thus faith is strengthened.

With this aim, Jesus began: "Then (at that time) shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins . . .". The parable was intended for the special benefit of the generation which sees the Lord's coming in glory. Its interpretation and application necessarily relate to the call of those who live to see Christ's return. Thus any equation of the slumbering virgins with those asleep in the grave is vetoed by the very first word.

Perhaps ten virgins are specified because, traditionally, ten is the minimum number for a synagogue. Here, appropriately, it suggests the community of the New Israel. These have "gone forth to meet the Bridegroom" as he comes in a happy company bringing his Bride to the home he has prepared for her. The Bride herself is not mentioned in the parable-for the simple reason that, in a different but related sense, the Ecclesia of Christ is represented by the ten virgins, the main point of the parable being division between wise and foolish. All parables are found to involve some element of unreality or discordance (because they are parables and not the thing itself). Here the fact is easy to perceive. There is then no special difficulty about the interpretation.

All ten believe and know that the Bridegroom will soon be returning. Their going to meet him proclaims that his happiness is theirs also. This is now their chief concern. But five of them are foolish. Outwardly they are indistinguishable from the others—like the tares among the wheat, and the house built on sand standing beside the house built on a rock foundation. But time will tell.

Although the foolish go with lighted lamps, they give no thought to the possibility that they may have mis-estimated the time of the Bridegroom's coming. So they have with them no reserve supply of oil. The other five, guarding against the shameful possibility of a wedding procession without lights and of the consequent disappointment of the Bridegroom, are careful to carry flasks of oil with them.

It would be a mistake to make any inference from the five and five regarding the ratio of worthy to unworthy in the Day of Judgment. In the parable of the Sower the proportion of unworthy is three in four, in the Talents one in three, in the Pounds one in ten, in the Wedding Garment one in a great many.

The hour grows late; eager expectation and lively talk about the Bridegroom's coming gradually give place to drowsiness, until at last all of them have abandoned the attempt to stay awake. Making themselves as comfortable as they can, they settle down to sleep. Thus the cry: "Behold the Bridegroom! Come ye forth to meet him," takes all of them by surprise. In greater or less degree all are unprepared.

As already shown, the slumbering of the virgins cannot answer to the sleep of death. Is it possible to imagine some who have been raised from the dead making frantic efforts to equip themselves adequately to meet their Lord before actually going to his presence?

Rather, this sleep of the virgins implies that, with the best intentions in the world, even the most dedicated of Christ's servants will be caught unawares by theevent itself (1 Th.5:6,10), No matter how a man may school himself by devoted service and spiritual exercises, his Lord's coming will suddenly provoke in him a tremendous sense of personal shortcoming and inadequacy. This is bound to be the case with a/I, in spite of every good intention and high aspiration. Such is human nature. The experience of all the ten is that "lamps are going out" (RV). In earlier studies the point has been made, not infrequently, that often in some detail or other the parables lack verisimiltude. Here is a further example. It is difficult to believe that the lamps of all the foolish virgins would be simultaneously on the point of going out just at the time when the warning cry is heard. Yet, when the spiritual significance is considered, nothing could be more accurate. For all who should be ready to meet Christ when he comes, but are not, there is bound to come a moment of intense honest self-awareness (and panic!) as the stark realisation floods into the mind of neglected opportunity and personal unworthiness. Of course this will be true, in some degree, for all, wise and foolish alike; for no man will be in a position to face his Lord in that day preening himself because of his own fine spiritual qualities. But the essential difference between wise and foolish then will be this-that the former will have reserves to fall back on, and the others will not.

No oil!

The interpretation of this "oil in their vessels" (besides what has already burned in their lamps) is not easy. The lit lamp is what makes the virgin acceptable as a member of the wedding party. This suggests that the light of the lamp means personal godliness and spirituality. From one point of view, all suddenly recognize how ill-equipped they are in this respect-lamps going out. But those with a well-balanced faith, based on the patient acquisition of the Bible's instruction in righteousness (Pr.6 :23), will quickly be able to adjust themselves to this dramatic call to meet their Lord.

On the other hand, nothing is more certain than the panicky reaction in some: "I am not ready to appear before him now, but give me only a little time and I very soon will be." This, too, is human nature-unregenerate human nature, alas, for only those who believe in salvation by works and in their own ability to make themselves spiritually presentable, would adopt such an attitude. Only those imperfectly schooled in the wholesome principles of Holy Scripture would assume themselves capable of quickly achieving a saving self-reformation.

The foolish ones will instinctively seek the aid of those better equipped than themselves-a natural human reaction-only to find that when the moment of reckoning comes, "no man can by any means redeem his brother, or give to God a ransom for him" (Ps.49 :7; cp. 1 Pet.4 :18), for then "every man shall bear his own burden."

At such a time the only alternative to vigorous self-help is a humble faith-full dependence on the grace of Christ. In the parable-and, alas, in what the parable represents-the foolish ones consider the former of these courses of greater use to them, and with the energetic frenzy of anxious minds they rush off to knock up the proprietor of the village store, and so make good their lack of oil.

It may well be asked: Why did not the wise virgins counsel differently: 'No oil? Then come with us without it. The Bridegroom is a gracious understanding man. He will forgive you.' The simple answer is: Foolish virgins do not see the Bridegroom in this light (cp. v.24).

Meantime, the bridal procession draws near, and joined by the five virgins with brightly burning lamps, all go on to the new home and its inaugural festivities, "and the door was shut." "That door was shut," wrote Burgon, "which received Aaron after his idolatry, which admitted David after his adultery, which not only did not repel Peter after his three-fold denial, but even delivered its keys to him" (by all means compare also Gen. 7:16).

In a wedding such as this parable describes, would not the Bridegroom have been told that other virgins were on their way? But not so here. It is another instance of the parable not being true to ordinary life.

By and by, then, the others come to the place of the marriage feast. (The worthy always receive attention before the unworthy, Mt.25 :24,41; 13 :48). Feeling that now they have not only got their lamps burning brightly but also have made themselves a trifle more fit for appearance, they knock, begging admission. But now, what use their pathetic lamps in a feast which is already a blaze of light? To claim a place there when they have insulted the Bridegroom with their unpreparedness and non-appearance is an added impertinence. The Bridegroom has no use for them. "Verily I say unto you, I know you not." It is a mutual ignorance. The Good Shepherd knows his sheep, and is known by them (Jn.10 :14). "Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer . . . for that they hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the Lord" (Pr.l :28,29).

Thus Jesus added fresh solemnity to his much-repeated warning: "Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh."

A call and optional response

If there is any kind of fundamental resemblance between this parable and the experiences of disciples witnessing the Lord's coming, it surely requires that in the Last Day there be some attempt at spiritual refurbishing as counterpart to this last-minute effort to get guttering lamps re-equipped with oil. It may be taken for certain that many, when called by angelic messengers to meet the Lord will wish for more time and further opportunity to spruce themselves up for the day of reckoning. This is the almost automatic reaction of spiritual immaturity. Those who, perhaps unthinkingly, believe in justification by works, will ask for a little more time in which to make themselves spiritually presentable. Yet there is no more fundamental Bible teaching than the principle that human nature cannot upgrade itself.

On the other hand, those who respond immediately to the midnight cry will do so not out of any conviction that they are already fit to share the joy of blessing in the Marriage of the Lamb, but because they have learned the grace and compassion and forgiveness of Christ.

This parable seems to have as an integral part of its message the idea that when the Lord's disciples receive the call to meet him, there will be no compulsion to obey the call forthwith. Of course, sooner or later it must be obeyed, for "we must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ." But the implication behind the experience of the foolish virgins seems to be that some will seek deferment of this "conscription", in the hope that an interval of time, be it ever so short, will provide opportunity for a personal re-dedication to the imitation of Christ, and-in consequence-a better prospect of acceptance by the Judge of all the earth.

In the parable preparedness to meet the Bridegroom meant sharing the wedding rejoicing with him. But the delayed preparation of the others ensured that they were shut out. It would seem likely, then, that similarly, when the parable becomes reality, the waiting disciples will (in general) decide their own destinies by the kind of response they give to the angelic call. In that moment of shock a man will be able to act only according to his own essential character.

This concept has not received the degree of careful consideration which it deserves. The number of Bible passages which speak of the call of the saints to judgment is really quite small, but most of them have this idea explicitly stated, or by implication.

  1. Luke 17:28-33: "Just as it was in the days of Lot ... even thus shall it be ... Remember Lot's wife. Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it." No compulsion, but only direction, was applied by the angels then. And, also, "as it was in the days of Noah ...". Then God said: "Come thou . . . into the ark" (Gen.7:l).
  2. Luke 12 :36: "Be ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their lord . . . that when he cometh and knocketh, they may open unto him immediately." What point is there in the inclusion of this final word unless there be some special blessing associated with prompt response to the call?
  3. Luke 21 :36: "Watch ye therefore and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man." Is there here an implication that some disciples will not escape the evils of that time, and will not "stand" (in the sense of Malachi 3 :2)?
  4. Matthew 24 :31. It is the elect who are gathered together by the angels "with a great sound of a trumpet." When only one trumpet was used in the wilderness, it was to summon the princes of Israel, and not the entire congregation (Num.10 :4).
  5. 1 Thessalonians 4:17: "And so shall we ever be with the Lord." There is pointed omission in this passage of the judgment which must necessarily precede everlasting blessedness. Is this because those called away have already sorted themselves out by the response which they give?
  6. Psalm 89 :15: "Blessed is the people that knows the trumpet sound: they shall walk, 0 lord, in the light of thy countenance." the context suggests judgment and the kingdom: "Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne . . . the Holy One of Israel is our king."
  7. Exodus 3 :6: Moses, unworthy and rebellious (4 :14,24), was "afraid to look upon God." But Moses, faithful and meek and an importunate intercessor for his people, insisted: "I beseech thee, shew me thy glory" (33:18).
  8. Matthew 13 :41,49: "The angels sever the wicked from among the just." At first sight this is a direct contradiction of the many Scriptures which declare Christ to be the Judge. The theme of this study effectively establishes harmony here. (For further details: "The Last Days," chapter 12.)
In "Nazareth Revisited" (page 173a) R.R. has a speculation on similar lines, but without any Biblical exposition: "There may be an attempt on the part of the self-condemned during the interval between emergence from the grave and appearance at the judgment-seat, to make good their short-coming case. And while so engaged the actual summons to Christ's presence may arrive to the others assembled (in the parable the sequence is different from this), and those may be accepted, and the others afterwards arrive to find the door of the kingdom closed against unavailing cries of 'Lord, Lord, open to us'.

Notes: Mt.25:1-13

lamps. Gk: torches. But the mention of oil settles that these must be the usual earthenware lamps.
Slumbered and slept. The Gk. tenses imply: They nodded off, and then slept on.
A cry. The equivalent in this parable of 24:31 and 1 Th. 4:16. By whom is this cry made?—by members of the wedding party going ahead. In the fulfilment, the angels.
Lest there be not enough. The original text is far more emphatic than this AV reading. It has a triple negative.
Went in, the qualifications being that one be "faithful and wise" (24:45).

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