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The Life of Jesus - Series 12: Episode 5

Parable of the Ten Virgins

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 25:1-13

Jesus told this parable which would have been easily understood, to teach about readiness for the Second Coming.

Jesus told this parable which would have been easily understood, to teach about readiness for the Second Coming.


Hello, and welcome to Series 12 and Episode 5, in which we are going to discuss a parable of Jesus, the Parable of the Ten Virgins, which appears in Matthew 25.

Introduction and Recap

We are halfway through dealing with the teaching of Jesus concerning the end times, and particularly his Second Coming. We have been following the story, as described in Matthew 24; there are parallel passages in Mark 13 and Luke 21. We have thought through the implications of how those three connect together. Matthew's account is the fullest, and generally in my teaching I'll go with the fullest account where we have parallel accounts of any events or teaching in the Gospels. We have been in Matthew 24.

It is good to remind ourselves of the wider context because we are in the last week of Jesus' life. A week in which many dramatic things have already happened. They have been told in Series 11, and we have been looking at events like the Triumphal Entry, when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Sunday at the beginning of the week, in great excitement and with huge crowds. They were anticipating that he would bring in the Kingdom of God as the Messiah and Son of David; they even thought he might overthrow the Romans and reform the Temple practices, and bring peace and blessing to the whole nation. Then on Monday, Jesus confronted the religious authorities by going into the Temple, which was their stronghold and the centre of their activities. He challenged their market trading activities by turning over the tables of the market traders, who were exchanging coinage and buying and selling animals and birds for the sacrificial system, as the pilgrims came to pay their temple tax to make their animal sacrifices. The reason for all this was that there was a major underlying conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment in Israel, represented by the Sanhedrin, the ruling religious council that had legal authority over the religion of Israel, the implementation of the Law of Moses and the Temple system. They had already denounced Jesus. They were preparing to capture him, arrest him, try him and hopefully get him executed by the Romans. That was the plan. Jesus knew that. He confronted them concerning their unbelief and refusal to accept his messianic status and he pointed out the serious consequences of their failure because it would lead the whole nation of Israel astray and lead to divine judgement on the nation of Israel.

We have seen that on Tuesday of that week, Jesus came back to the Temple and had a number of debates with religious leaders. He told three different parables which were aimed at the religious establishment, pointing out their actions and the implications of their unbelief and hostility towards him. He ended by denouncing the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law as hypocrites. We saw that in Matthew 23. Then he left the Temple area and it is in leaving and in moving out of the city and sitting on the Mount of Olives, a nearby hill just overlooking the city, that we have the teaching that comes to us in Matthew 24 and Matthew 25. He is teaching his disciples; he's sitting on the Mount of Olives and he is explaining to them things that are going to happen in the future, after he has died and been raised again from the dead, and after the Church has been launched. In our studies in Matthew 24, we have noticed that Jesus has been answering questions that the disciples asked him, after he made a very dramatic statement about the Temple. We have looked at these verses in every previous episode in order to understand the context. We need to do that again now. Matthew 24: 1 - 3,

‘Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see these things?” he asked. “Truly, I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another. Every one will be thrown down!” As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us”, they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”’

Matthew 24:1-3, NIV

Jesus makes a startling prediction that the Temple, which had been there for hundreds of years, was going to be destroyed, ‘not one stone left on top of the other’. This really was a surprise to the disciples. Jesus links it with his teaching that the nation of Israel was going to come under judgement. The disciples asked three questions, ‘When will this happen?’, that is, the destruction of the Temple and judgement on Israel, number one. ‘What will be the sign of your coming?’ That's a question about the second coming of Jesus. Thirdly, ‘What will be the sign of the end of the age?’ They didn't know how those three events were going to be connected in terms of timing and chronology.

The way we have looked at Matthew 24, has provided key answers to those three questions. In the first section, verses 4 - 14, Jesus paints a general picture of the age of the Church in the centuries to come, after his death and resurrection, in which there will be a lot of turbulence in the world and pressure on the Church, but the Gospel will advance and be preached. Then, from verses 15 - 22, in our second episode, we noticed that Jesus taught specifically about Israel and the circumstances of God's judgement on Israel, and on the Temple. We also noted the parallel passage in Luke 21: 20 - 24, which gives more detail of those events which took place between 66 and 70 A.D. In the last two episodes, Jesus has been answering questions about the Second Coming and the end of the age. Those two things are linked together in his thinking, and he points out that they are separated from the judgement on Israel. We have studied from verse 22 to 51, many things about the Second Coming. We have found out the Second Coming is a very public event. Jesus is going to come in glory, power and majesty. All the inhabitants of the earth are going to be aware of his return. Those who don't believe will enter into a state of mourning and distress. Those who believe, known as the elect in Jesus' teaching here, will be taken up in glory and join him in his Kingdom rule. We have seen that the suddenness of Jesus' coming is a decisive factor. Jesus described it in our last episode as ‘a thief coming in the night’. No-one knows when a thief is going to come. He comes suddenly; he comes by surprise; he takes you off guard; and there's nothing you can do if you're not ready and prepared. If you haven't locked your house securely; it is too late. He went on to speak a parable about a household where the master handed over the direction of the house, or the management of his large and rich household, to a senior servant. He gave him the management of all the other servants. He oversaw the procedures of all the house, everything that was done, the master gave responsibility for organising it all. Then, if he went away the question was, would the steward continue to look after the household or would he be selfish and exploit the other servants and spend his time drinking and wasting time and money? The implication is when the householder comes back, you need to be ready for him.

That introduces themes that we are going to look at in more detail in Matthew 25, where the themes of faithfulness and readiness are very important. It is such an important issue that Jesus tells four different parables around the themes of faithfulness and readiness. One of them we have already looked at - the Parable of the Faithful Steward, which appears in Matthew 24: 45 - 51. We saw that in the last episode. There are now three more parables and we are going to spend three episodes looking at them. Today we are looking at the parable of the Ten Virgins and in the next episode, the parable of the Bags of Gold, and then we are going to look at the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. They are all around similar themes, very vivid and powerful and they all emphasise readiness and faithfulness.

Jewish Weddings

Parables have a central meaning, and we can work out the significance of some of the details  Some of them are allegorical and some of them are not. We are going to focus in this parable mostly on the central meaning. Jesus tells a very vivid story and it is a story about a wedding. A wedding in Israel was a very important event, and the readiness of the community for that event was vital. It was a community event; if you were in a village, virtually everybody would be caught up in this event and participating in it. There were several stages to the wedding and the marriage process. Often the overall event would last a number of days. John has a wonderful story of Jesus visiting a wedding banquet at the village of Cana (John 2). You may remember the story which we looked at much earlier on in our teaching, when they actually ran out of wine. That was because the event was going on a long time and there were obviously quite a number of guests. Jesus miraculously turned water into wine to help the host deal with a situation of extreme embarrassment. He sat and he enjoyed the wedding. Here is another wedding and the situation here is of the bridegroom coming to the house of the bride and taking her from there back to his family home, which was part of the ritual ceremony for many weddings in those days. Let's read this amazing story of the ten virgins. The focus is on the ten young ladies, rather than on the bride and the groom specifically. Matthew 25: 1 - 13,

‘“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. At midnight, the cry rang out, “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out and meet him!” 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!” “ 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.” 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. Later, the others also came. “Lord! Lord!” they said, “Open the door for us!” But he replied, “Truly, I tell you I don't know you” Therefore, keep watch because you do not know the day or the hour.”’

Matthew 25:1-13, NIV

Let us go into the background of the story before we try to work out its meaning and application. The reconstruction that I think makes sense of the events described in the story is that at the beginning of the marriage and wedding process, very often in Jewish society, the bridegroom, if he's living in the same community or nearby, which is obviously the case here, will go from his family home to his bride's family home, in order to receive her and take her back to his home, where the celebration might continue. This could take place in the daytime or the night-time. In this particular case, the context is the night-time. When he arrives at the bride's house, many people will be there, anticipating his arrival - particularly her friends and her family. There would be a procession through the streets with the bride and the groom, the bridegroom's family and friends alongside, and the bride's family and friends alongside. If it is in the night-time, then lighting will be needed. No electricity in those days, so torches were used. When they arrive back at the bridegroom's house, the bridegroom's father, who is the host of this particular event, will receive them back and receive the bride who will become his daughter-in-law in marriage. He will receive the guests and they will open up their home in celebration and the party will begin. If this is happening in the night-time, then the party is going to go through many hours during the night. These festivities very often extended beyond the one day, so it is possible that in the subsequent days, there would be ongoing celebrations in the village.

That is the sort of environment we are talking about; that's the sort of the story that Jesus is telling us; that's the sort of culture that he is speaking into. We can imagine this as a wedding between a bride and groom who live relatively close to each other. They might live in neighbouring villages and that journey might take a little time to go from one village to the other. The procession is very important and being ready for the bridegroom when he arrives is also very important. No-one knew the time that the bridegroom would arrive at the bride's house to collect the bride to take her back to his family home in order for the celebrations to begin. There is an unknown time element to the story. Those who listened to this story would quickly understand that, because that was their experience. Even in modern times, timing in weddings in modern Western society, and especially of the arrival of the bride can be quite variable. This can be a matter of interest in that particular event. In ancient Jewish society, there was a considerable variation likely to happen. You had to be ready.

Details of the Parable

The story starts by saying, ‘at that time’. What is ‘that time’? ‘That time’ is the time of the Second Coming, the topic of Matthew 25 is the Second Coming. The second half of Matthew 24 has dealt in detail with some formal teaching about the Second Coming, how it will happen, what is to be expected. Now we're talking about readiness and faithfulness until that time comes. The story here is easily applicable to Jesus because the idea of him being the bridegroom is an idea that has already been stated in earlier parts of the Gospels, for example John 3: 27 - 30: John the Baptist states.

‘“A person can receive only what is given to them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said I'm not the Messiah but I have been sent ahead of him. The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom's voice! That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater and I must become less”’.

John 3:27-30, NIV

John here likens himself to the friend of the bridegroom. As soon as the bridegroom appears, then he needs to fade into the background. He likens Jesus to the bridegroom. Jesus himself uses a similar statement in Matthew 9: 14 - 15,

‘Then John's disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, then they will fast.”’

Matthew 9:14-15, NIV

Again, Jesus is likening himself to the bridegroom, so it is not difficult to see how this story connects with other themes of Jesus' teaching. We know who the bridegroom is, but who are the virgins? Who do they represent? Are they the bridesmaids? I don't think they are. They are not stated as such. They are implied to be female, unmarried friends of the bride-to-be. They are gathering together in the bride's house to be with her in that time, in preparation for the bridegroom coming, and to be ready to join the procession that will go from her house back to the bridegroom's family home. They are unmarried women from the village or community who were invited guests and friends of the bride. What is the significance of the oil? It is dangerous to allegorise too much here. The oil is what is needed practically for them to be ready. Some have likened it to the Holy Spirit but it doesn't actually say that, and we don't need that meaning for the parable to have its full effect.

The Wise and Foolish Virgins

Looking at the details, if the ten virgins are the bride's friends, what is the difference between the wise and the foolish virgins? Let us go back and think about the torches or lamps. Probably, they were wooden poles with wicks on them that were dipped in olive oil and then set alight. That was a standard way of providing yourself with a torch in the communities of the day. Those wooden poles with wicks on needed a significant supply of olive oil. Olive oil is the vital commodity here. The wise virgins had made a decision that because they didn't know when the bridegroom was coming, they didn't know how long the evening was going to be - they didn't know how long their torches were going to need to burn, they didn't know how much oil they would need - that they would take a large supply of olive oil. They bought olive oil specially, took a large supply and they brought it to the bride's house. The torch could be burning in the house if needed, or in the garden, and they would still have more oil so that whenever the bridegroom came there would be a reserve supply of oil they could dip their torches in and go on the procession.

The foolish virgins, the unwise virgins, just took a minimal amount of oil and their torches started going out, because they hadn't thought about time, hadn't really thought about the event, hadn't prepared themselves. They were approaching the whole thing in a very casual way. It so happened that the bridegroom came later than expected - at midnight, right at the end of the day. They had fallen asleep; they had run out of oil and the procession was starting immediately. Everybody in the household was preparing to go through the streets from one place to the other in the procession and they did not have their torches ready because they had no oil left. Obviously they tried to get some off the other virgins, who said, ‘No, we haven't got enough to share. You'll have to go buy some.’ They knew people who sold olive oil; there's always somebody selling olive oil in any ancient community. They went to knock them up in the middle of the night but while they were doing that, the procession started out, and the procession got all the way to the bridegroom's family home and everybody went in for the feast and the celebrations. The doors were closed. The celebrations were continuing, and were in full action by the time they arrived and knocked on the door. They weren't allowed in. They hadn't been ready. The doors were closed before the foolish virgins arrived and they were shut out permanently.


It is quite a vivid story and would have had a big impact on the listeners, who had experienced these kinds of weddings in their villages and towns regularly. What lessons can we draw from this particular parable? The only difference between the wise and the foolish virgins was readiness. Five were ready and five weren't. Five were considering the implications of being ready for an event which they couldn't pin down in terms of time. They didn't know when it was going to happen. They were in it for the long haul. However many hours they had to wait at their friend's house, they had enough oil. They were ready for the procession whenever it took place. The others were not ready. The application to us is that the Second Coming should always be in our minds. It is a certainty. We don't know when it's going to happen but we do know that it is going to happen and we should adopt the approach of being ready, of being committed for the long haul, committed for our whole lives to follow Jesus Christ - be ready in case he returns at any time. If he hasn't returned by the end of our lives, then we have fulfilled a faithful life. We should not be deceived by the fact that the Second Coming has been, from our point of view, delayed. It's been delayed 2000 years since Jesus spoke these words but its certainty is as great now as it was then. We know that not even Jesus knew the timing of the Second Coming and therefore the fact that we don't know when it's going to happen really doesn't matter. What matters is the quality of the lives we live. We want to live lives so that if he was to return tomorrow, or the day after, next week or next month - we'd be ready; we'd be found faithful as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What are the customs for weddings in your culture?
  • Discipleship
    1. What would a life of 'readiness' be like?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Research the passages describing Jesus as the bridegroom, using tagging to help
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