What's its meaning? This timely parable is intended to teach us about the suddenness and unexpectedness of the Lord’s second coming. It calls for us to be prepared for that unknown, unscheduled moment.
Warning: Don’t be caught unprepared for the bridegroom’s second coming!
par•a•ble [noun] a simple story used to illustrate the meaning of or a moral or spiritual lesson, as told by Jesus in the gospels
synonyms: allegory, moral story/tale, fable
(This parable is also known as The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids. It appears only in Matthew’s gospel.)
Matthew’s chapter 25 begins with Christ referring to a specific time: his second coming. He was speaking of when Jesus comes to reward the faithful servants and punish the unfaithful ones. The Parable of the Ten Virgins tells us what will happen to a variety of people when the Lord Jesus’ kingdom comes. It tells us that Christ will come at an unexpected moment to judge sinners and reward the righteous. Afterward, there will be no second chance for anyone. People may knock on kingdom’s door all they want, but the door will remain shut.
We must put this parable into context to appreciate its purpose and meaning. In chapter 24, Matthew tells us that Jesus spoke this parable in response to his disciples’ request to learn what sign would signal the Lord’s coming at the end of the age (24:3). In 24:4–31, Jesus spoke to them about the last days, making it clear that the end wouldn’t come immediately, but after considerable time and troubles. Jesus issued various warnings (24:4–28) because, during those troubled times, there’d be many infiltrators who’d seek to turn men’s attention and affections away from Jesus, the true Messiah.
Since no one can know the day or hour that the Lord will come, we must be constantly in a state of alertness, ready at any moment.
It’s essential to put every parable of Jesus into context, as well as learn its historical setting, if we intend to understand and appreciate its value and importance. According to D.A. Carson in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (1995, Zondervan), “Normally the bridegroom with some close friends left his home to go to the bride’s home, where there were various ceremonies, followed by a procession through the streets — after nightfall — to his home. The ten virgins may be bridesmaids who have been assisting the bride; and they expect to meet the groom as he comes from the bride’s house… Everyone in the procession was expected to carry his or her own torch. Those without a torch would be assumed to be party crashers or even brigands. The festivities, which might last several days, would formally get under way at the groom’s house.”
Regarding the lamps themselves, Pastor Bob Deffinbaugh says this about them. “I would understand that the lamps were transported without oil in them. If they traveled in the daylight, these lamps would not have been needed on their journey to the wedding place. The reason the wise virgins brought oil was because the oil was carried in flasks and added to the lamps at the time of need. There must have been some residue of oil on the rag or wick of the five empty lamps, which quickly burned out, only moments after being lit. This would explain why all five torches went out at the same time. Perhaps, too, these foolish virgins minimized their foolishness by describing their plight as ‘running out,’ so as to look less foolish.”
Four things we need to understand about this parable: the wedding, the bridesmaids, the bridegroom, and the warning.
1. The Wedding (v. 1)
The scene Jesus depicts is a wedding. In Bible times, weddings were big village events, often the greatest of social celebrations. Everyone would have been involved: friends, families, and neighbors. Weddings were events filled with people, happiness, and festivity.
You can imagine the anticipation of the bride and bridegroom as they waited for the big marriage process to begin. That’s what we see in this parable. The wedding celebration started when the bridegroom went to the bride’s house where the bride and her bridesmaids would be waiting for him. That night, everyone would go through the village, with torches or lamps, singing, talking, and frolicking, unequaled to any other social event. Jesus tells us that everything was ready for the wedding to start: The bridegroom had prepared a home; he was coming to pick up and take his bride to their new home, at night, so the procession through the village could be viewed and appreciated by everyone. The wedding party would go to the couple’s house, where the celebration would continue for as long as seven days. At the end of the wedding celebration, a friend of the bridegroom would take the hand of the bride, place it in the hand of the bridegroom, and everyone would leave. The couple would then physically consummate their marriage.
The point of this parable is that Christ will return at an unknown hour and his people must be ready. Being ready means preparing for whatever contingency arises in our lives, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus at all times while we eagerly await his coming.
2. The Bridesmaids (vv. 1–5)
25 1“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep (Matthew 25:1–5).
Verse 1 introduces us to ten virgins with their lamps. The Greek word phanos translated as “lamps” means “torches.” These torches were sometimes long, wooden poles with wire mesh attached to their top so that when filled with cloth that was soaked in oil, it would easily light and remain lit. When people used torches or clay or terracotta lamps, they carried a small flask of oil with them to prevent the torch’s light from being extinguished. These ten bridesmaids or virgins were at the house of the bride, holding their torches, waiting for the bridegroom to arrive.
In the parable, the bridesmaids are called “virgins” (Gk., parthenos, “an unmarried girl who is a virgin”). People married young in Bible times; often, bridesmaids were young girls who were sisters, cousins, or intimate friends of the bride. It was a special joy and privilege for them to attend the bride and wait in anticipation of the glorious evening when the bridegroom would appear to all.
There’s no significance to these bridesmaids being virgins. Jesus called them virgins simply because bridesmaids were usually virgins. Notice also that there were “10” virgins. Apparently, Jewish people then favored the number “10.” Ten men had to be present at a wedding to give the proper blessing; it took ten men to constitute a synagogue; ten bridesmaids was a customary number to have, and all ten had a torch. Just as bridesmaids today carry flowers to adorn the wedding party, bridesmaids carried torches in those days because there was an evening procession that required light (see “1. The Wedding” above for details). The bridesmaids waited in anticipation of meeting the bridegroom.
Do you wonder to whom Christ referred when he spoke of the ten virgins? It’s obvious from the context that he was talking about people who profess to be Christians — to be followers of Christ. They say they know Christ and that they anticipate his coming. They might even say that they’re prepared for his return to earth; they’re wearing their wedding garments and holding their torches. Their presence symbolizes their interest in Christ while their torches symbolize their profession of faith in Christ. They all show outward indications of their anticipation of the coming of Bridegroom Christ. They’re gathered as bridesmaids, waiting to be invited into the glorious marriage celebration.
The lamp oil likely represents “saving grace.” In a crowd of people who outwardly appear to honor Christ we’ll surely find those whose hearts are unprepared for Lord Jesus’ arrival. They’ve not yet requested or received salvation that is freely given through the Savior’s grace. The oil in this parable is reminiscent of the wedding garment in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22:1–14), in which a king at his son’s wedding found an unprepared guest who hadn’t worn the requisite wedding garment; as a result of his being unprepared, he was kicked out of the wedding celebration. Having been unprepared for that wedding, the man was unprepared to enter God’s kingdom because he hadn’t prepared his heart to accept Jesus as his Lord.
Jesus says in v. 5, “The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.” Apparently, the bridegroom didn’t come when the bridesmaids expected him. Perhaps the Lord was subtly telling the disciples that the kingdom wouldn’t come immediately as they thought it would; instead, there’d be a long wait. Notice, too, that both the wise and the foolish virgins were asleep. So there wasn’t anything wrong with being asleep; it’s just that the wise virgins were already prepared before they fell asleep. They were ready for whatever might come when they woke. But the foolish virgins were caught unprepared. They should have bought and carried oil for their lamps when they had the opportunity. Their false sense of security allowed them to sleep through the day and miss their great opportunity.
3. The Bridegroom (vv. 6–12)
6“At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
7“Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’
9“‘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.’
10“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.
11“Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’
12“But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you’” (Matthew 25:6–12).
We read in v. 6: “At midnight the cry rang out.” Midnight is a late time to start a wedding. The point our Lord wanted to make is that he’ll return at an unexpected time. That verse also tells us next of the cry that was made: “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” That glorious moment was the wedding’s commencement; the celebration would go on for several days; the bride and the ten bridesmaids would begin their procession; the bridesmaids would light their torches to brighten the walkway on their procession back to the groom’s house, which is analogous to the moment of Christ’s second coming.
Jesus says in v. 7, “Then all those virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps.” They probably had to get the cloth at the end of the torch ready to receive the oil. Those who had oil with them poured it on the cloth and lit their torches. Those who didn’t have oil realized that they were unprepared, so they asked the wiser virgins to give them needed oil. Note: The statement that told the foolish virgins to buy oil for their lamps doesn’t mean that salvation can be bought. It’s a free gift (Romans 6:23)! However, to receive salvation from Christ, you have to admit that you’re a sinner, agree that Jesus died to free you from the penalty of sin, affirm that he rose from death, and finally choose him to become your Lord.
In v. 10 we read that while the foolish virgins went to get oil, “the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.” The foolish virgins had no opportunity to buy oil at midnight. While they were gone, the door to the wedding was shut.
The five virgins who had extra oil represent those who are truly “born-again Christians” who look with eagerness to Christ’s coming. They faithfully determined that, whatever occurs, be it a lengthy time or adverse circumstances, when Jesus returns, they’ll be prepared. The five virgins without oil represent false believers who enjoy the benefits of the Christian community without truly loving Christ. They’re more concerned about the party than about personally meeting the bridegroom. They hope that by associating with true believers (“give us some of your oil” — v. 8) they’ll be allowed into the kingdom at the end. Sadly for them, that will never be the case. One person’s faith in Jesus cannot be used to save another.
4. The Warning (v. 13) The parable concludes, “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour” (v. 13). No one knows the exact moment of Christ’s second coming. We know the era: It will be right after the tribulation. But how much time will pass after the tribulation before the Lord comes? No one knows. So be ready now. Being a little late might wind up becoming too late.
Jesus is warning us in this parable that there will be a number of people who look like Christians, who associate with Christians, and who even think they are Christians, who’ll be shocked to learn that they aren’t saved at the return of our Lord. What a sobering realization.
Thankfully, the door into God’s kingdom remains open as we await Christ Jesus’ return. One day it will be shut. Many people will be caught unprepared. Warning: Don’t be caught unprepared for the bridegroom’s second coming! May you not be found “away, making a purchase” (v. 10) when Christ returns. Take the time and make the effort now to fill your lamp with oil. Wait and watch in eager anticipation.
This parable was based on wedding customs of the time. Jewish weddings typically took place in the evening, though the exact time was kept secret. Prior to the ceremony, the groom would go to the bride’s home and lead her, along with the villagers, in a procession to the wedding. The virgins in this story were waiting for the groom, and were probably bridesmaids who had the responsibility to prepare the bride to meet the groom.
Our application questions from this parable:
1. What feelings do you have when you hear someone predict the end of the world?
2. What would you call the refusal of the five women to share their oil? Wise? Selfish? Just? Mean? Unjust?
3. How do you feel about Jesus saying that the door to his kingdom gets closed for some?