Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
If you grew up in the 1970’s or 80’s like me and were part of an evangelical church then you were almost certainly exposed to plenty of speculations about the timing of Jesus’ return. Prophecy “experts” filled the auditoriums of our largest churches with their lectures and slide presentations. The number one bestselling non-fiction book of the 1970’s was Hal Lindsey’s apocalyptic The Late Great Planet Earth.
Perhaps you remember the little book 88 Reasons Jesus will Return in 1988. I remember otherwise thoughtful people saying things like, “You know, he makes a solid case.” And then when it didn’t happen the author released 89 Reasons Jesus will Return in 1989. No word if the author will give it another try.
In those days, people seemed to be constantly interpreting the Bible through the newspaper and vice versa. In the 1930’s many Christians were convinced that Hitler was the beast of Revelation. When I was a kid the Soviet Union was the key player in the devil’s plans. And then when Gorbachev came along with that birth mark on his forehead we knew! He was the anti-Christ. Of course the Left Behind series of books trained the 1990’s generation to hold to those same end-times theories.
The fact is, every generation of Christians sees the rise of voices who claim to know that they are the terminal generation; the generation which will see the return of Christ. We saw a spike in this at the turn of the millennium. People sold their businesses, left their homes and retreated to churches and hillsides or other secluded locations convinced that there would be a Y2K disaster ushering in the last days. No doubt there will be others come along who whip undiscerning Christians into a fury of misguided expectations.
Jesus’ parable of the Ten Virgins is part of a sermon he delivered on the Mount of Olives often times referred to as the Olivet Discourse. It is recorded in chapters 24 and 25 of Matthew’s Gospel. The first section of Jesus’ sermon covers most of chapter 24 and concludes with a very clear statement: “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (vs. 36).
Jesus therefore warns against those deceivers and false prophets who come along and say that they have discerned when the end will come. We simply do not know, nor do we have any way to know when Jesus will return and usher in the age to come. However, we are to keep watch. We are to be prepared for Jesus to return.
That doesn’t mean that we try to correlate current events with passages from Daniel or Revelation. It means that we are to be careful in how we live. We are to attend to those things that truly matter. We are to examine our hearts to, as the apostle says, “make our calling and election sure.” We are to attend to our most holy vocation to love God and love our neighbor. We are to live our lives with the sort of love and witness and prayerfulness and righteousness that befits men and women who know that Jesus could come back at any moment.
Christianity is an eschatological faith. That is, it rests upon promises which will be fulfilled in an age yet to come. Because of the dying and rising of Jesus what has been corrupted by sin will be made incorruptible. The wicked will be judged and the righteous will be fully redeemed. The dawning of this new age where sin and death are no more will be inaugurated at the return of Jesus.
- Jesus will return unexpectedly (Matt 24:42, 44).
- Jesus will return visibly and audibly to all (Matt 24:27; 2 Thess 1:7; Rev 1:7).
- Jesus will gather his people living and dead (Matt 24:31; 1 Cor 15:23; 2 Thes 2:1-2).
- Jesus will judge the world (Matt 16:27; 25:31-32; 2 Thess 2:8).
- Jesus will welcome his people into his presence (1 Thess 4:16-17; Luke 23:43; Phil 1:21-23).
- Jesus will raise the dead (1 Cor 15:43-45, 52; 2 Peter 3:13; Rev 21:1-3).
The Parable of the Ten Virgins is about perceived delay. The setting is a man who is on his way to marry his betrothed. On the way to the festivities he will be joined by a company of ten young women. This festal gathering complete with torches will accompany the bridegroom to the wedding. Since the ten virgins do not know the exact time of the bridegroom’s arrival they must be ready with enough oil for their torches to account for a long wait. Five of the ten failed to prepare for a long wait. The other five had equipped themselves with enough oil should the bridegroom’s arrival take longer than they expected. The bridegroom would arrive just when he intended. But it would likely be perceived by some as a late arrival.
In this parable Jesus built upon that which is recorded in Matthew 24. He knew that following his resurrection and ascension the first generation of Christians would have no shortage of those predicting his immediate return. Jesus called them deceivers and false prophets. But those deceivers were persuasive. Many first generation Christians fully expected Jesus to return in their lifetime. By denying the possibility of a long wait they were in danger of being caught unprepared.
Throughout this body of teaching Jesus is speaking to covenant insiders. That is, he is speaking to those in the house of Israel, God’s visible people. They had received the sign of the covenant, learned God’s law, and tasted many of the benefits of God’s covenant promises. But among them were those who nevertheless remained strangers to the Lord and were therefore entirely unprepared for his return. The same is true for God’s new covenant people, the church. It is possible to be counted among God’s visible people but to be among those to whom the Lord will say, “I do not know you” (25:12). Readiness, therefore, begins with repentance and faith. It begins with looking to Jesus in faith as Lord and Savior. And readiness continues in the same way. It continues by a lifestyle of putting sin to death, of daily trusting Jesus, and going about faithfully loving God and neighbor.