1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like 10 virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the groom.
2 Five of them were foolish and five were sensible.
3 When the foolish took their lamps, they didn’t take oil with them.
4 But the sensible ones took oil in their flasks with their lamps.
5 Since the groom was delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
6 In the middle of the night there was a shout: ‘Here’s the groom! Come out to meet him.’
7 Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps.
8 But the foolish ones said to the sensible ones, ‘Give us some of your oil, because our lamps are going out.’
9 The sensible ones answered, ‘No, there won’t be enough for us and for you. Go instead to those who sell, and buy oil for yourselves.’
10 When they had gone to buy some, the groom arrived. Then those who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet, and the door was shut.
11 Later the rest of the virgins also came and said, ‘Master, master, open up for us!’
12 But he replied, ‘I assure you: I do not know you!’
13 Therefore be alert, because you don’t know either the day or the hour.”
Jesus is on the Mount of Olives with his disciples, responding to their questions about the future destruction of the Temple and the end of the age. Just before this, in Matthew 23, Jesus pronounces woes on the Jewish leaders for their hypocrisy. Then, leaving the Temple and crossing over the Kidron Valley, He tells His disciples that the Temple, a glistening monument to Jewish nationalism (but a stale house of worship where He was rejected as Messiah), would soon be demolished. Shocked by this prediction, His disciples ask him in Matt. 24:3, “When will these things happen (the destruction of the Temple)? And what is the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Jesus responds in the rest of Matthew 24-25 in what is known as the Olivet Discourse. The parable of the 10 virgins comes in the middle of this message.
The central theme of this parable is that people should stay alert and be prepared for the return of Christ.
The central character in this parable is the bridegroom, or Christ, who is delayed in his coming for the bride, the church. Scripture often refers to the church as the bride and Christ as the bridegroom (Matt. 9:15; Mark 2:19-20; Luke 5:34-35; John 3:29). Believers are “espoused” or “betrothed” to Jesus, who promises He will come one day and take them to His Father’s house (John 14:1-3).
An understanding of the Jewish wedding custom is helpful in navigating this parable. In Jesus’ day, if a young man has acquired sufficient means to provide a marriage dowry – or payment for a bride – then his parents select a girl for him, call in a “friend of the bridegroom” (John 3:29) to represent them and begin negotiations with the bride’s father, who also selects a representative. If consent is given for the bride to be married, and if there is agreement on the amount to be paid, congratulations are exchanged, coffee is brought out and everyone drinks as a seal of the marriage covenant. Later, the families of the bride and groom meet. The young man gives the young woman a gold ring, some article of value, or simply a document in which he promises to marry her, saying, “See by this ring (or this token) thou art set apart for me, according to the law of Moses and of Israel.” The young man then leaves his bride-to-be, promising to return once he has prepared a place for her.
He then returns to his father’s home and, under his father’s supervision, prepares a wedding chamber for his bride. The period of betrothal normally lasts a year or more and may only be broken by obtaining a bill of divorcement. While the bridegroom works on the wedding chamber, the bride prepares herself for the wedding and remains chaste – covering her face with a veil in public to show she is pledged to be married.
At last, the father gives word to his son that all is ready and the night of the wedding arrives. The groom dresses as much like a king as possible. If he is wealthy enough, he wears a gold crown; otherwise, it is a garland of fresh flowers. The bride, meanwhile, goes through an elaborate and costly adorning. Every effort is made to make her complexion glossy and shining like marble. Her dark locks of hair are braided with gold and pearls, and she is decked with all the precious stones and jewels her family has inherited from previous generations.
The groom sets out from his father’s house to the home of the bride in a night-time procession attended by wedding guests bearing torches. The bride steps out to meet him, receives the blessing of her relatives, and then proceeds across town with the groom to his father’s home. A grand procession follows them. The invited guests who did not go to the bride’s home are allowed to join the march along the way, and go with the whole group to the marriage feast. Since the streets are dark, the guests need a torch or lamp, without which they may not join the procession or enter the feast.
There are demonstrations of joy all along the route. Family members hand out ears of parched grain to the children, musical instruments are played, and there is dancing and shouts of “Behold, the bridegroom comes!” At last they reach the home of the bridegroom’s father, where the specially built wedding chamber is prepared. Together they enter the suite and shut the door, and for seven days they stay inside, alone. Meanwhile, a seven-day celebration breaks out. At the end of the seven days, the bride and groom emerge, leave the father’s house and set out to establish their own home.
This is the context in which Jesus’ disciples hear the parable, so the truths about the bridegroom going away, preparing a place and returning are well-known, as are the elements of delay and surprise. This parable clearly is a teaching that Jesus, after His suffering, death and resurrection, would return to His Father, prepare a place in heaven for believers, and then call His bride to meet Him in the air in an event known as the rapture (1 Cor. 15:50-57; 1 Thess. 4:13-18). The seven-day honeymoon perhaps depicts the seven years the church is in heaven while the tribulation takes place on earth. And the leaving of the father’s house after the honeymoon may picture the glorious appearing of Christ when He returns to earth with the saints, sitting on the throne of David, and ruling the earth with His bride.
It is interesting to note that the bride is not mentioned in this parable. While Scripture often refers to Christ’s church as His bride, the focus in this parable is on the bridegroom and the virgins, or attendants. It is not necessary for believers to be represented as both bride and bridal attendants, or this would present difficulties Jesus did not intend. Remember that His parables generally illustrate one key spiritual truth – and this parable warns all those who profess Christianity to make sure they are ready for Christ’s return.
Therefore, let’s see the virgins as professors of the faith, those who claim to know the Bridegroom and await His coming. Some are “wise” and some are “foolish” – not good and bad. There is at least a degree of goodwill, and good intentions, in the foolish as well as in the wise. The difference is in the depth of their commitment, which is evident by their readiness for the Bridegroom’s coming.
The wise virgins are those who truly know Christ and are known by Him. They understand that His coming may be delayed, so they are prepared with an abundance of oil, “that inward reality of grace which alone will stand when He appears whose eyes are as a flame of fire” (Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary). They may not be excused for slumbering while the Bridegroom tarries – even Christ’s closest followers could not stay awake one hour while He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane – yet they persevere and are allowed into the marriage feast.
The foolish virgins are those who profess to know Christ but lack a genuine relationship with Him. They carry their lamps – an outward profession of their faith in the Messiah – but they lack the reserve of oil that is the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. When the Bridegroom comes, their lamps are dark.
The supply of oil may be seen as that inward grace of Christ that has enduring character. Whereas God’s grace is given to all in a general sense, only those who have entered into a relationship with Him receive His Spirit Who, like the oil of the wise, is abundant and sufficient.
Nothing should be made of the fact that there are 10 virgins, other than that Jews would not hold synagogue, a wedding or another ceremony without at least 10 witnesses. The fact that five of the virgins are wise and five are foolish should not be taken to mean that half of all professing Christians are lost. There is folly in reading too much into the details of Christ’s parables.
All 10 of the virgins “slumbered and slept.” The word “slumbered” signifies “nodding off” or “becoming drowsy.” The word “slept” is the usual word for lying down to sleep. This denotes two states of spiritual stupor – first, “that half-involuntary lethargy or drowsiness which is apt to steal over one who falls into inactivity; and then a conscious, deliberate yielding to it, after a little vain resistance” (Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary).
The lamps are of two general kinds. The first consists of rags wrapped around one end of a wooden pole and dipped in oil. The second, and most likely, consists of a “round receptacle for pitch or oil for the wick. This was placed in a hollow cup or deep saucer … which was fastened by a pointed end into a long wooden pole, on which it was born a loft” (Dr. Alfred Edersheim, quoted in Manners and Customs of Bible Lands).
When the bridegroom comes at last, the foolish virgins need oil, for their lamps are going out, and so they ask the wise for oil. The response of the wise is important in two respects. First, they deny the request for oil – not out of selfishness or a judgmental nature, but because all 10 virgins would be undone. Salvation is not to be acquired from believers but from God. Second, the wise virgins tell the foolish to buy their own reserve of oil. This does not imply that salvation may be purchased, only that the foolish need to acquire salvation the same way the wise did.
When the bridegroom comes, the wise are ready. They join the wedding procession with their blazing lamps and are welcomed in. The foolish come too late, after the door has been shut, and are excluded from the wedding feast. Today, believers and unbelievers populate the visible church; in a day to come, God will separate those who merely profess to know Christ from those who truly do.
There is no improving on the words of Jesus, “Therefore be alert, because you don’t know either the day or the hour” when the Bridegroom will come (Matt. 25:13).