Ten Sleepy Virgins: Are You Ready for Christ’s Return?
November 18, 2001
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Here is a nighttime wedding where everything seems to go wrong. The groom shows up so late that the bridal party falls asleep by the side of the road. When the groom finally arrives at midnight, half the bridesmaids have forgotten to bring enough oil for their lamps and end up banned from the celebration. As the story concludes, the rejected bridesmaids are standing outside the door asking for admission, but to no avail. They have been shut out from the wedding banquet. It is a sad, strange ending to what should have been a most joyful occasion. Other than that, it was a perfectly normal wedding!
This passage is a parable Jesus told to illustrate a certain truth about his Second Coming. The parable itself is a little masterpiece, with each detail adding a piece of crucial information. As I have studied this parable, I have been struck by one phrase in verse 10: “And the door was shut.” There is an awful finality about those words. It means that the door was shut and locked and would not be opened again. Those on the inside were safely inside; those on the outside could never get in no matter how hard they tried.
There is a “door” that leads to heaven. It is the door of God’s grace, held open by the bloody cross of Jesus Christ. For 2,000 years that door has been open to the entire world, and it is open even today. Over the door are these wonderful words: “Whosoever will may come.” Anyone, anywhere, anytime can go in that door and find new life, salvation, forgiveness, freedom, and eternal life.
Not Open Forever
Today the door is open but our text reminds us that the door will not be open forever. As I type these words, a siren goes off not far away, reminding me that life is short and very uncertain. Perhaps the door of opportunity has just been shut through death. And we can be certain that death does shut the door of God’s grace for once we die, the only thing left is to face God in judgment (Hebrews 9:27). There is no “second-chance” beyond death for those who had no time for Jesus in this life. Once you die, the door is shut forever. Either you go through the door while you are alive or you will never go through at all.
Jesus uses this parable of the ten virgins to remind us that the door will be shut once and for all when he returns to the earth. In order to catch the impact of this story, we need to know something about first-century Jewish wedding customs. In those days you got married in three stages. First, there was the formal engagement, which was almost always arranged by the parents. Some months later (up to a year or more) came the formal religious ceremony in the bride’s home. That would be something like our modern wedding ceremony. Third, there was a wedding banquet (or feast) at the groom’s home. That banquet took place sometime after the formal ceremony, usually at night. It might happen the same day or it might take place a week or so later. And in certain cases that “banquet” could last up to seven days. So it was quite an elaborate affair that cost a lot of money, and therefore it was a major social event that everyone wanted to attend. When it was time for the banquet, the groom would take his bride and together they would walk to the groom’s house. The road before them would be lit with lamps held aloft by the wedding party. The bridesmaids would take part in this ceremony of welcoming the bridegroom (and the bride, though she is not mentioned in the parable) as he prepared to come for the banquet. It would be a major breach of etiquette for anyone in the wedding party not to be by the road ready to welcome the bridegroom.
And that’s the background of this story. The formal ceremony having already taken place, the ten virgins (the bridesmaids) are by the road waiting for the groom to appear. Their lamps are lit as they anxiously await his coming. When he is delayed, they all fall asleep. At midnight someone shouts the good news, “Behold, the bridegroom is coming!” The virgins wake up and prepare to relight their lamps, which had gone out while they slept. Five of the virgins had brought extra oil and so could relight their lamps. Five had no extra oil. When the first group asked to borrow some from the other five virgins, they were refused. While they went off to buy some oil, the bridegroom appeared and the five virgins whose lamps were lit went in with him to start the party. The door was shut by the time the other five virgins returned. Here is the sad end of the story, “Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you’” (Matthew 25:11-12). Jesus makes a simple application to his Second Coming in verse 13, “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”
That’s the story. It’s a little slice of life from a wedding that went haywire. The focus of the story is on the ten virgins. Five were wise and five were foolish. Five had oil and five didn’t. Five were ready and five weren’t ready. Five entered the wedding banquet and five were refused. All of this is meant to teach us that some people will be ready and others won’t be ready when Jesus returns to the earth.
I. Alike in Many Ways
One of the most striking facts about this story is how similar the ten virgins appear on the surface:
Â· All had been invited the banquet and all had responded positively.
Â· All ten had gone out to wait for the bridegroom.
Â· All of them had their lamps with them.
Â· All the virgins wanted to see the bridegroom.
Â· All were in the right place at the right time for the right reason.
Â· All of them wanted to go to the wedding banquet.
Â· All had some oil in their lamps at the beginning.
Â· All fell asleep while waiting for the bridegroom.
Â· All were awakened by the midnight cry.
Â· All ten virgins got up to prepare their lamps.
Â· All appeared to be equally prepared for the bridegroom’s coming.
That last statement is crucial. Let’s suppose that we were to ask the ten virgins to stand in front of us in no particular order. Could you pick out the five foolish virgins? Answer: no, and neither could I. We could argue about it and say, “Number 2 looks a little bored. Maybe she’s a foolish virgin.” Or, “Look at Number 6. She’s chewing gum. How wise can she be?” Or, “I know Number 10. There’s no way she’s a wise virgin.” But it wouldn’t make any difference. I submit to you that there was no way to tell in advance who was wise and who was foolish. To the untrained eye, they would all look the same.
II. One Crucial Difference
And yet there was one crucial difference. You couldn’t see it by casual observation because it wasn’t a matter of dress or outward appearance. I imagine that all the bridesmaids dressed alike and looked alike. But there was something else, something not readily visible that separated these young girls from each other forever. Five were wise and entered the wedding banquet. Five were foolish and were summarily excluded.
What made the difference? Verse 5 offers an important clue: “The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.” Where was the bridegroom and why was he late? The text doesn’t say because the reason doesn’t really matter. If the wedding was last Friday, then perhaps he was at the Atlanta airport when that football fan ran past security to retrieve his camera and ended up shutting down the airport for hours and delaying flights all over the eastern U.S. Maybe it was something like that. Or perhaps he had business to attend to or maybe his parents were ill. Perhaps he had travelled to a distant city and was hurrying home as fast as possible. It had to be something important because the delay was in no way due to any reluctance to get married. We know that because when he finally shows up at midnight, instead of postponing the party (as most people would do), he orders that the party should begin right then.
And that brings us to the key point of the parable. Five of the virgins figured out that he might be late in arriving so they brought some extra oil with them. That’s why they were prepared when he finally showed up. The other five virgins evidently never thought about the possibility that he might be delayed. Or if they thought about it, they dismissed it as so unlikely that it wasn’t worth worrying about. Either way, they weren’t prepared when he suddenly arrived at midnight.
Before we feel sorry for them, please consider this. The foolish virgins knew the bridegroom was going to get married, they knew he would come to the banquet, and they knew they needed oil for their lamps. It’s not a matter of a lack of information or having the wrong information. All ten virgins started with the same facts. The five foolish virgins had everything they needed to know. And still they were not ready!
Two other questions and we can move on. First, if they apparently managed to buy some oil after midnight (as the story seems to imply), why were they not let in at that point? The answer is: They waited too late! No doubt their intentions were good, but good intentions were not enough. Once the door was shut, it would not be opened again no matter how long they stood outside or how loud they shouted.
Second, what does the oil represent? The best answer seems to be that it represents the inward preparation of the heart for the Lord’s return. Or we might say it represents true conversion. In the Old Testament, oil often stands for the presence of the Holy Spirit. We might then say that oil represents the indwelling power of the Spirit that accompanies true conversion. The five wise virgins represent those whose hearts have been truly changed by the power of the Holy Spirit. The five foolish virgins represent religious people who come under the conviction of the Spirit but are never truly converted.
III. Lessons for Modern Churchgoers
From this little parable we can draw a number of important spiritual lessons. As we think about these things, let’s remember that this is a story for “insiders,” for church members and religious people of all denominations. It is for those who claim some attachment to Christ and who profess some allegiance to him.
A) The True Nature of the Visible Church
Every Sunday two churches gather at 931 Lake Street in Oak Park: an outward church and an inward church. The outward church is everyone who comes to Calvary. It consists of members, regular attenders, friends, visitors, and the great mass of peripheral people who rarely attend but still consider this church as their church. As such, the visible contains the truly converted and the unconverted. It consists of some who know the Lord, some who are seeking the Lord, some who attend but are lethargic, and others who are nothing more than religious hypocrites.
The inward church is the “invisible” church made up of those true believers in Christ who worship here week-by-week. The point of Christ’s parable is to remind us that just because you go to church doesn’t mean you are truly born again. People come to church for all sorts of reasons, some good and some not so good. People come because of family ties, to see their friends, to get out of the house, because they like the music, in order to impress people, or because of a feeling of guilt or obligation or because they think they can gain favor with God by being in church. Not all of those things are evil in themselves but any of them or all of them can be excuses that keep you from coming to Christ for salvation.
Going to church is good; coming to Christ is better.
Being baptized is good; being born again is better.
Giving money is good; giving your heart to Jesus is better.
Being religious is good; knowing Christ as Savior and Lord is better.
You could be Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Catholic, Mennonite, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Church of Christ, Charismatic, or a member of Calvary Memorial Church and still not be a true Christian. To some people that is a shocking thought, but it is true nonetheless. Church membership identifies you with the visible church of Christ, but only true saving faith makes you a member of the invisible church of those know the Lord.
B) The Impossibility of “Borrowed” Faith
One striking feature of the parable occurs when the foolish virgins ask the wise virgins to borrow some of their oil. The refusal may seem selfish and unkind unless you understand the situation. To loan the oil would mean that no one would have enough oil. And the larger point is clear. No one can “borrow” another person’s faith. You can’t get into heaven by living near a saved person. One day you will stand before the Lord and he will say, “Why should I let you into my heaven?” What answer will you give?
“My mother was a godly woman,” you might say. “And that’s why she’s in heaven,” the Lord will reply, “but what about you?”
“My dad was an elder,” you say. “Fine, but that’s not why he’s in heaven, and anyway his eldership won’t do you any good,” the Lord replies.
“I went to Moody Bible Institute.” Substitute “Southwestern Baptist Seminary” or “Trinity Seminary” or “Torchbearers” or “YWAM training” or “Wheaton College” or “French Evangelical College” or whatever school you favor. The outcome will be same. You can’t “borrow” faith from the school you attended. Salvation is always a personal affair. You can’t go to heaven by hanging onto someone’s coattails. You must believe in Jesus on your own, for yourself, not relying on the faith of those around you.
C) The Coming End of the Day of Grace
Recall the solemn words of verse 10: “And the door was shut.” No door stays open forever. The foolish virgins forgot to bring extra oil and then went out to buy some oil. By the time they got back, the door was closed. It was too late!
Today the door of salvation is wide open to one and all. When you die, the door will close. When Christ comes back to the earth, the door will close. What will you do then?
Some people act as if they’re going to live forever. After September 11, I wonder how anyone could think that way. Did you know that at least three people who were in the World Trade Center on September 11, and got out alive, died in the plane crash in Queens, New York last Monday? Think about that. You escape the worst terrorist attack in American history only to die on a plane bound for the Dominican Republic. What is your life? It is a vapor that appears for a while and vanishes away (cf. James 4:13-17). No one knows what tomorrow may bring. Perhaps you will live another 20 years or 20 months or 20 days or 20 minutes. Who knows?
About four years ago a friend from Dallas came to Oak Park for a visit. He attended the church I pastored in Garland, Texas during his student days at Dallas Seminary. After earning his Ph.D. he returned to the faculty at the seminary. When I saw him, he looked great. A few weeks later he was diagnosed with a brain tumor that turned out to be malignant. He survived a difficult surgery and lengthy recovery period and seemed to be getting better. This week I heard that his cancer has returned and that he has an infection in his skull. No one knows what the future may hold for him. I hope and pray for a complete recovery but there are no guarantees. Not for him, not for any of us.
Do not say, “Someday I’ll come to Christ.” Come now. Don’t wait for “someday.” Do not say, “I’ll repent later.” If you wait, you may harden your heart and never come at all. Come now.
D) The Danger of Self-deception
Finally, we see in this story a warning about the danger of self-deception. What a sad scene as the five foolish virgins plead at the door: “Let us in, sir. You invited us. We’re sorry we were late. We didn’t realize you would be delayed. Please let us in. We meant no disrespect.” From inside comes the solemn reply: “I never knew you.”
Consider those young women. They thought they were his friends to the very end. They were never his enemies and they thought they were ready to meet him but they weren’t. In the same way many religious people will be tragically surprised in that day when they present outward righteousness and inward emptiness only to hear the Lord say, “I never knew you.”
I am struck even more by the fact that these five virgins are never called sinners. They are never accused of gross immorality. By outward appearance, they seemed ready to meet the bridegroom. It is clear that they truly wanted to see him. That is part of the tragedy. If they were visibly sinful women, we could understand their being shut out of the banquet, but between them and the five wise virgins, there is little to choose. Outwardly, they are all the same. But inwardly there was a huge difference. The five foolish virgins were not ready, they could not borrow oil and they could not beg their way in. These women did nothing—and that was their problem. They did everything right but the one thing that mattered most, and that is why they were shut out of the banquet.
Some people will miss heaven and it will be no one’s fault but their own. You won’t be able to blame your father or your mother or your friends or your ex-husband or your ex-wife or your in-laws or those hypocrites at church. If you miss heaven and wonder why, look in the mirror and you will have your answer.
Some people will find out the value of Christ too late. They will suddenly realize how wrong they’ve been, but the door will already be shut. The world will one day declare that the followers of Christ made a wise decision. Today the door of salvation is wide open. Someday it will be shut forever. Make sure you are on the right side of the door when that day comes. Amen.