By Anthony Kent
For more than 185 years students of the Bible have been focusing on Matthew 25:1-13 to understand what Jesus expects of His faithful people as they await His second coming. This passage has been central to Seventh-day Adventist thought and witness throughout our history. We present here a thoughtful, practical guide to understanding this key Bible story, originally shared as a sermon in the Spencerville, Maryland (U.S.A), Adventist Church in March 2017.–Editors
Where were you on April 29, 2011?
You may remember . . . there was a British royal wedding. And I have to tell you – on that day, in so many places around the world, there seemed to be nothing else on TV!
Who was the bride? Kate Middleton.
Who was the groom? Prince William.
But who was the star of the wedding? Pippa Middleton! The bride’s sister; the bridesmaid.
Jesus once told a parable in which 10 bridesmaids were stars of the show.
To be honest, it’s a shocking parable, not because it’s a “bad” parable, but because it’s full of surprises. Be prepared to be shocked. Better still, be prepared! Some translations include this warning: “Keep watch!”
With an economy of words—just 13 verses, and 170 words in the Greek original of Matthew’s Gospel—extraordinary pictures are drawn. Most of us can recall the sharp conversations as well as the emotions that are evoked—such emotions as panic and anxiety. As we read the parable, we can almost find ourselves cringing with the sheer awkwardness.
Teenagers love to say “Well, that was awkward!” to describe a particularly embarrassing event. This parable portrays the ultimate awkward event of all eternity.
“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom” (Matt. 25:1).*
“At that time.”
We want to know—at what time? In Matthew 24 there’s a graphic portrayal of what’s going on in the world before Jesus returns.
Matthew 25 describes what’s happening in the church—among Jesus’ closest followers, those in His wedding party—just before His return. This parable is about discipleship in the twenty-first century.
This parable has an unusual time-related phrase in its opening lines: “the kingdom of heaven will be like” (or “shall be like”).
Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, in chapter 13, a string of parables all begin: “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .”
Wheat and tares.
A mustard seed.
Treasure hidden in a field.
A pearl of great price.
But the parables in Matthew 25 are unique. When Jesus told these parables, Matthew recorded them as being in the future tense. They are describing what is happening in the church immediately before Jesus returns.
For one reason or another, this parable is largely ignored by many in the Christian world. In fact, one author writes, referring to all scholars, “Clearly some scholars do not care for this parable, and often it is omitted or treated briefly.”1
And if we’re being truly honest, many of us don’t care for this parable either.
There’s a penetrating sharpness to this parable. The parable is so sharp that there is a warning message at the start:
“Five of them were foolish and five were wise” (verse 2).
It’s as though this parable is so surprising and so shocking that there is a summary, preparing readers for the surprise that’s in store for them.2 It’s much like the warning that comes on certain television and video content: “Viewer discretion advised.”
One of the first surprises in the story Jesus tells is about the bride, or to be more accurate, what bride? There is no specific mention of the bride, but the bride is there.
Further, the parable is not known as the Parable of the Late Bridegroom, or the Parable of the Midnight Bridegroom. Instead, it’s known as the Parable of the 10 Virgins. The bridesmaids are the center of attention.
That in itself says something about the Great Storyteller, Jesus. His purpose was never about Himself, but about others. Even on His wedding day He places the emphasis upon others.
Also, there’s no mention of any guests. Yes, there is an unidentified “midnight cry” voice announcing the arrival of the bridegroom, but the whole focus of the story is upon the bridesmaids.
In a sense, there’s nowhere to hide in this parable. There is only one option: readers of the parable can only be bridesmaids.
And if we’re again honest, gender doesn’t seem to be the issue here. The characteristics described here are not peculiar to young females. The characteristics of these 10 people appear in all humanity, in all nationalities, and all cultures.
Of the 10, there are five wise, or, as some commentators have portrayed them, “thoughtful”3 or “sensible.”4
The remaining five have been described as foolish, unwise, thoughtless, even silly, by many commentators.
And if we’re tempted to think as we read, “Ah, no big deal,” consider what Ellen White wrote: “This parable has been and will be fulfilled to the very letter.”5
So the actual parable begins:
“The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them” (verse 3).
What were those lamps?
According to one of the best authorities, the “lamps here are not the small, hand-held Herodian period lamps, which would generate very little light, but torches.” “In poorer villages these torches may have been sticks wrapped with oiled rags.”6 “Some scholars have suggested that the torches could burn only 15 minutes before being rewrapped with more oiled cloth.”7
The point is that these lamps would burn brightly, but not for long. The purpose of the light was not to provide light for the bridegroom to find his way in the darkness. “The light is to make for a grand arrival: the bridegroom will be illuminated as a focus of attention; this is his moment of glory as he is on his way to take his bride.”8
In much the same way many people welcome the arrival of a new year with spectacular fireworks, the bridesmaids were to welcome the bridegroom with the brightest lights they could muster.
“The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps” (verse 4).
Some scholars believe that the torches had associated oil containers. It remains unclear whether the foolish maidens are to be thought of as leaving the containers behind, or, perhaps more likely, as bringing them, but without first filling them with oil.9
So if they did take containers, they contained only the dregs of a previous use, the leftovers. They made no preparation.
These associated oil containers or jars were designed so that these lamps or torches were actually dipped into an oil container or jar to maximize the loading of the oil onto the torch. The cloths would absorb the oil like a sponge soaking it up, perhaps better than a cookie soaks up milk.
“The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep” (verse 5).
After much information has been shared about the bridesmaids, we receive the first details about the bridegroom. And so we ask, “Who is this bridegroom?”
The identity of the bridegroom is unmistakable. Everything points to Jesus. The context of the parable is undeniably specific: the Bridegroom is clearly Jesus.
We are also caught by the matter of the delay that is described. It seizes our attention because we can’t help reading ourselves into this story. We’re waiting for the Bridegroom, aren’t we? We’re waiting for Jesus to return. We are in this! You and I are among the 10.
“All the virgins would have been ready for the groom had he arrived when they expected, but grooms’ delays were common enough that they should have anticipated it; this provides clear warning that the parousia [Jesus’ promised second coming] might be delayed—perhaps for Jesus’ first disciples who expected the kingdom to appear immediately, and surely for those who were disappointed at Jesus’ nonreturn at the temple’s demise in [AD] 70.”10
While the coming may be delayed, it is inevitable. Jesus promises that
He will return with power and great glory!
“They all became drowsy and fell asleep.” The wise, the prepared, were not superhuman, or superheroes. The human body is designed by the Creator to sleep when it is tired. Remember, it is this same Bridegroom who gave humanity the Sabbath to rest.
The text is transparent here. They slept not because they had given up the faith or grown cold in their faith. The sleep the virgins slept—all 10 of them—was the beat of normal human life. They aren’t condemned for sleeping in the middle of night. When else are virtuous people meant to sleep? Sleeping at midnight is not a sin.
“At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ ” (verse 6).
Most of us are secretly wondering, “What event starts at midnight?”
Thanks to modern technology, some sports fans will watch sporting events that start at midnight, but only because it’s happening in another part of the world at a reasonably “expected” time in the host area.
Events finish around midnight, or so we assume. Weddings and parties often finish around midnight. Some of us stay up to midnight to welcome in the new year, but sensible people go to bed soon after.
Has anyone ever attended a wedding that started at midnight? Would you attend a church board meeting at midnight? Other faiths may conduct their midnight services, but not Adventists. We’re believers in health reform!
The term translated “midnight” is actually less precise in the original Greek: it’s more like “in the middle of the night” or “well into the night.”11
At whatever hour, though—at a moment’s notice—all the virgins are called to action, even if it’s the middle of the night. They may have been drowsy earlier, but not now!
But as has been noted: “The passage of time seems to play no essential role in the story; the die has long since been cast by the failure of the foolish maidens to bring oil.”12
Like me, you may think of the great ocean liner Titanic, which sank in a great tragedy a little more than a century ago. Most of the construction materials were of the highest quality, except for the rivets. The builders could access only inferior-quality rivets. The rivets, which held everything together, didn’t hold everything together. In that sense, it wasn’t a matter of whether the Titanic would sink, but when.
Now comes the decisive moment of the story: the cry comes!
For Adventists, this phrase is filled with deep and powerful imagery. The concept of the “midnight cry” has been so central to our history as a remnant that those expecting Jesus’ return in 1844 even named a journal after it: The Midnight Cry.
“Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out’ ” (verses 7, 8).
A few years ago I was in Slovenia, speaking at some important meetings. I was feeling the effects of jet lag after my arrival. I had worked hard during the day, and it was stressful standing up in front of people and speaking.
In the process of going to bed, I knew I was going to sleep soundly. Just before I got into bed I had this strange prompting: Recharge your mobile phone. I looked at my phone, saw that it was half charged and thought, That will do. I’ll recharge it tomorrow night. I got into bed and slept soundly. The next morning, after speaking for several hours in meetings, my phone rang with the sudden and totally unexpected news that my father—thousands of miles away in Australia—had died.
I quickly discovered how quickly a half-charged battery empties and expires. Just when I wanted to be able to talk, to be comforted and offer comfort, I had no power.
Emergency travel plans needed to be made, and there wasn’t even a spark in the phone.
Let’s shine a little more light on the key people in the parable:
“Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps.”
The five we have called “foolish” all knew the bridegroom. They didn’t simply know about him: they knew him. They were waiting for him—supportive. Further, they associated with those we call “wise.” They weren’t argumentative or destructive. They didn’t carry fire extinguishers or water or sand buckets. It wasn’t their intention to be hindrances or obstructive. In fact, they had all the right paraphernalia; they had lamps! But they were missing the vital ingredient: oil. In a more familiar analogy, they had a car, but no gas.
They had one job, which was but a momentary role in the whole scheme. Like a percussion instrument in a whole orchestra—a triangle or drum that has to be hit only once, but at the right moment—the player must coordinate both elements, both drum and drumstick. But now we have the drumstick but no drum! Everyone is waiting for one decisive beat—the other orchestral players are waiting for it; the conductor is anticipating it; even the audience is looking forward to it. And there is silence.
A few weeks ago I was listening to our church organist play a beautiful piece I know well to conclude the worship service. I knew that there’s a bass note he was going to play, so I was sitting there, anticipating it, and he delivered. In a moment like that, you feel the music not just in your ears but through your whole body.
But we all know the dismay of dashed expectations, when things don’t turn out as they should. We cringe at the unworthy explanations offered by those who fail to meet what is reasonably expected of them. You, too, know the line attempted by too many unready students: “The dog ate my homework”!
As one author emphasizes: “It’s not just a lack of planning, it is a piece of pure thoughtlessness.”13
To borrow the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah: “They are all mute dogs, they cannot bark” (Isa. 56:10).
Well-known Adventist evangelist Mark Finley writes about this moment: “Living on the knife-edge of eternity, on the verge of the kingdom of God, the entire church is pictured as spiritually drowsy, asleep.”14 “The foolish virgins trusted in their past experience as if they had all that was needed for their spiritual lives. The height of Christian folly is neglecting personal soul culture and believing everything is all right. The foolish virgins neglected to nourish their souls.”15
Ellen White wrote: “The class represented by the foolish virgins are not hypocrites. They have a regard for the truth, they have advocated the truth, they are attracted to those who believe the truth; but they have not yielded themselves to the Holy Spirit’s working. They have not fallen upon the Rock, Christ Jesus.”16
They are in the right place at the right time. They are connected; they have all the right paraphernalia. But they are missing something.
“‘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’ ” (Matt. 25:9).
It may be a bit jolting to us that the wise won’t share any oil. They don’t seem to even check to see if they have any surplus. Perhaps they know all about their oil, even without looking.
Most of us know how much fuel we have in our cars. We know how our mortgages or bank accounts are doing.
But do I, do we, know our spiritual oil gauge as well as we know the level of our car’s fuel gauge?
I remember leading a Bible study with a group of teenagers. I was eager to hear their perspective on this parable, so we read this parable together and discussed it together.
I asked them about the wise not sharing their oil. The response of a 15-year-old was emphatic: “Why should the wise jeopardize their
entry when the foolish had every opportunity to have plenty of oil? Why should they risk heaven for them?”
It’s a good point! The stakes are too high.
More specifically, the lamps or torches the virgins used made it practically impossible to share the oil. Sharing air from one car tire to another is very difficult as well—highly unlikely. It’s like sharing a pen during an examination: impossible.
One writer makes this helpful observation: “The thoughtful do not scold the thoughtless or judge them.”17 They don’t take the time to do this. Nothing is going to distract the wise from their single purpose: flaming torches to meet the bridegroom!
“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” (verse 10).
So in the middle of the night the foolish are out trying to buy oil. We can imagine them going to all sorts of places. The context of the parable makes it hard to imagine a shop
open and selling oil at that hour of the night. Perhaps they resorted to calling in favors, feverishly visiting acquaintances, trying to borrow, perhaps even begging!
And that’s just when the bridegroom arrives.
In comparison to the extraordinarily long delay, the banquet starts with remarkable alacrity. Not only does the banquet start, but more important, the door was shut!
What does that remind you of? One chapter earlier Jesus had referenced another story that involved a shut door—that of Noah (Matt. 24:37-39).
This is dramatically, unmistakably important.
“Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ ” (Matt. 25:11).
We aren’t told whether the foolish had been successful in their attempts to buy oil, because it doesn’t matter anymore. They could have arrived with a camel load of the stuff, but it was too late. The whole purpose of the torches had passed. The grand triumphal arrival was over.
As sporting coaches sometimes say: “You can go back to a place, but you can’t go back to a time.”
“But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you’ ” (verse 12).
In verse 11 the foolish ask—
probably beg—for the door to be opened. But the door isn’t opened for them. The bridegroom doesn’t even come out to speak with these “others,” but apparently speaks through the closed door.
One author reminds us that one of the chief qualifications for the role of a bridesmaid was that they be unmarried friends or relatives of the bride or groom: “The comparatively trivial lapse of a failure to be provided with oil has come to symbolize an ultimately false relationship; they are not part of Jesus’ true family.”18
And the bridegroom says, “I don’t know you.”
This is the moment of our greatest discomfort, but the one in which we should be listening most carefully. “Some spiritual decisions can only be described as stupid. The decision to be a Christian, but not too much (which is close to the heart of this parable’s meaning), will be described as a stupid decision.”19
“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour” (verse 13).
Thus we come to the actual “take home” point of Jesus’ parable.
In other words: “Keep your faith. Protect, preserve, nourish your faith.”
By keeping watch, we hope. When we hope, we live in joyous anticipation. This overwhelms any embarrassment we may feel if we are seen by doubters to be watching.
When we watch, we long for Jesus to return. When we watch, we pray to and through Jesus; we meditate upon Jesus. We are immersed in Him.
When we watch, we seek our Bibles and crave to hear the words of Jesus. When we watch, Jesus is a natural, integral part of our lives: accompanying us, tending to us, guiding us, guarding us, through every intersection and curve of our lives.
When we watch, our views, values, and vision more approximate His beautiful views, values, and vision.
And so I close with the very words of Jesus: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour” (Matt. 25:13).
* Bible texts in this article are from the New International Version.
1 Klyne R. Snodgrass, Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) p. 505.
2 Preannounce important content of the parable and the beginning of the actual story is delayed until verse 3 (John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005, p. 1005).
3 Frederick D. Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, vol. 2: The Churchbook Matthew 13-28, Revised and Expanded Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), p. 544.
4 R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2007), p. 948.
5 In Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Aug 19, 1890.
6 Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 596.
7 Ibid., p. 597.
8 Nolland, Matthew, p. 1004.
9 Ibid., p. 1006.
10 Keener, Matthew, p. 597.
11 Nolland, Matthew, p. 1007.
12 Ibid., p. 1006.
13 Ibid., p. 1005
14 Mark A. Finley, Revive Us Again (Nampa: Pacific Press, 2010), p. 49.
15 Ibid., p. 53.
16 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900), p. 411.
17 Bruner, Matthew, p. 548.
18 France, Matthew, p. 950.
19 Bruner, Matthew, p. 544
Anthony Kent is an associate secretary of the General Conference Ministerial Association.