Among the teachings of Jesus, the parable of the 10 Virgins, found in Matthew chapter 25, ranks as one of the most grave. In it, the Lord presents a warning, namely that some of those who set out with the best of intentions to find the kingdom of God will not enter it, but will find themselves turned away in the end. As such, this is not a teaching that we can afford to misunderstand.
Bible teachers have speculated as to the finer points of meaning within the word pictures that Jesus presents in the parable, but I find that many seem to agree on a few key points. While all ten virgins represent professing Christians, only five of them are thought to be genuine believers, as only these have sufficient oil (which is interpreted as being the Holy Spirit) by which to make it through the night and enter the kingdom.
While this viewpoint is held by men who are highly esteemed, I believe that it is based on some false assumptions, and that a failure to properly understand this parable poses a grave danger to Christians living in the last days, as to misunderstand the warning in this instance is also to misunderstand the nature of the danger. For this reason, I offer the following discussion of the parable, in the hope that it will help my fellow Christians prepare for the difficult times that lie ahead.
First, here is the parable itself, from Matthew 25:1-13:
“Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish. 3 Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. 5 But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. 6 “And at midnight a cry was heard: ‘Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!’ 7 Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut. 11 “Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open to us!’ 12 But he answered and said, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.” (NKJV)The Context of the Parable
The Parable of the Ten Virgins is a notable example of one of those passages of scripture that are often interpreted in a vacuum, outside of the overall context in which they are meant to be understood. In this instance, the confusion is caused by an unfortunate division between chapters 24 and 25, which are really part of the same discourse and should be viewed as a whole. For this reason, if we want to understand what Jesus is saying in Matthew 25, we need to go back and review the groundwork that He laid in chapter 24.
Matthew 24 is often referred to as “the Olivet Discourse.” It contains major revelations concerning the events that will immediately precede the second coming of Christ and the end of this age of human history, and was provided in response to a request by Jesus’ disciples to better understand these matters. Jesus provides several warnings throughout the Discourse, but He emphasizes two things in particular: first, that deception will be rampant in the last days, and second, that His disciples must pay close attention to His words and do as He commands them in order to be saved through what is to come:
3 Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” 4 And Jesus answered and said to them: “Take heed that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many. 6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of sorrows. 9 “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake. 10 And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. 11 Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. 12 And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But he who endures to the end shall be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come…
23 “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There!’ do not believe it. 24 For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you beforehand. 26 “Therefore if they say to you, ‘Look, He is in the desert!’ do not go out; or ‘Look, He is in the inner rooms!’ do not believe it. 27 For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. 28 For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together…
32 “Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near—at the doors! …
42 Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. 43 But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. 44 Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.45 Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his master made ruler over his household, to give them food in due season? 46 Blessed is that servant whom his master, when he comes, will find so doing.”
It is after these various warnings and commandments that the parable is given, and it is in light of these things that it must be understood.
The Symbolism of the Parable
Now, let’s take a look at the symbolism of the parable in light of the excerpts we have just read from Matthew 24:
“Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.”The first thing to note here is that all ten of these women who are said to be on their way to meet the bridegroom are called “virgins.” The Greek word translated “virgin” in this passage is parthenos, which refers to a sexually pure woman who is eligible to be married. The word is used both literally and figuratively in the scriptures. An example of its usage in a figurative sense can be found in II Corinthians 11:2, in which the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthian believers that he is “jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present [you as] a chaste virgin to Christ.” Here, Paul means it in a figurative sense in that he is trying to keep the Corinthian Christians in the pure faith. This is a reference to spiritual purity.
In His parable, Jesus uses the term “virgin” in both literal and figurative senses: literally in that the women in the story are actual virgins who are about to be married, but figuratively in the sense of the type of spiritual purity that Paul longed to see in the Corinthian Christians. This is the same purity that Jesus references in Revelation 3:4-5, when speaking to the churches: "You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy”. It is also the same purity that is characteristic of the overcoming church, as described in Revelation 19:7-9: "’Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready.’ And to her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.”
Thus the fact that Jesus uses the term “virgin” in regard to all ten of the women in His parable is extremely significant. This means that all of them are eligible for marriage; all of them are spiritually pure; and this could not be true unless all of them represent true believers. Jesus would not have pictured unbelievers (the unrighteous, those who have not washed their garments) as virgins eligible for marriage to Himself (the Bridegroom).
“Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish. Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.”Note that Jesus differentiates the virgins on the basis of wisdom and foolishness, not with regard to their purity; again, all ten are virgins, but five are wise and five foolish.
Now consider this: where else in scripture does Jesus separate people into categories of “wise” and “foolish”?
Matthew 7:24-27 – “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall.”Thus we see that Jesus divides people into categories of “wise” and “foolish” based on their response to His teachings, and I feel that things are no different in the case of this parable, which He presents after a lengthy discourse full of warnings and commandments concerning what Christians should expect and how they should conduct themselves at the end of the age. Those who hear Him and obey what He says are represented by the wise virgins; those who hear but do not obey are represented by the foolish virgins. This is evidenced for us in how the virgins prepared themselves to meet the Bridegroom, as the wise virgins clearly put some thought into the circumstances they might encounter during their wait.
But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept.
This corresponds to Jesus’ warning that we need to watch and be ready because, “the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” The virgins knew the approximate time to go out to meet the Bridegroom, but they did not know exactly when He would arrive, and they grew weary during the wait.
A parallel can be drawn from what Jesus pictures for us here and what took place in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before the crucifixion. Jesus left His disciples with instructions to watch and pray, and then went a little farther to pray by himself. When He came back to check on the disciples, He found them sleeping:
Luke 25:45-46 – “When He rose up from prayer, and had come to His disciples, He found them sleeping from sorrow. Then He said to them, "Why do you sleep? Rise and pray, lest you enter into temptation."Interestingly, while Matthew and Mark also record this incident and tell us that the disciples slept “because their eyes were heavy,” they do not tell us that there was a specific reason for this weariness. Luke tells us that they slept because their strength was spent from sorrow, as the Lord had just told them that He was going to leave them (see John 14). Jesus, knowing this, of course, counseled them to pray, lest they enter into “temptation.”
The Greek word translated “temptation” here is peirasmos, which, according to Strong’s, carries the primary meaning of: “an experiment, attempt, trial, proving”. It’s the same Greek word that is translated “temptation” in Matthew 6:13: “And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one,” and “trial” in Revelation 3:10, where Jesus tells the church at Philadelphia: “Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.”
As you can see from the above, biblical “temptation” does not always refer to an enticement to commit specific sins; many times it refers to testing or proving, as in a state that a person enters into when he or she is not of a fixed mindset (as in the case of having divided loyalties) and might be swayed from one path to another, or from one master to another. This is not a state that a Christian wants to enter into, as one who is being tested might well fail the test, even as the disciples did in the Garden of Gethsemane.
All of this is even more evident when we see that the Lord promised the Christians of the Philadelphia church that they would be spared the coming “hour of trial” because they had already proven themselves: “Because you have kept My command to persevere.” The standing of the Philadelphia Christians was a sure thing at the time of the Revelation; their loyalty was not divided; they were not in danger of being led astray, thus there was no need to “test” them. He commanded only that they should continue to hold on until the time of their reward (Revelation 3:11).
The commandment to pray with regard to temptation is, therefore, of two-fold value to us: first, in that God would see fit not to subject us to it, and second, in that our focus should remain fixed on Him, ensuring that we will not be distracted or led astray from Him. The command is of crucial importance to all Christians, but it will be even more important to Christians living in the last days, as the trials to come will be especially severe. Only those who are fixed on the Lord and actively relying on Him will stand firm in the face of the Enemy: the coming first “beast” of Revelation 13, the “little horn” of Daniel 7:
Revelation 13:7 – “And it was given unto him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them: and power was given him over all kindreds, and tongues, and nations.”
Daniel 7:25 - “And he shall speak [great] words against the most High, and shall wear out the saints of the most High, and think to change times and laws: and they shall be given into his hand until a time and times and the dividing of time.”The Aramaic word translated “wear out” in Daniel 7:25 is bĕla', which, according to Strong’s carries a connotation of “to harass constantly.” God’s people who face the great end-time ruler will be confronted with relentless persecution; many will be taken captive and others will be killed. As John writes in Revelation 13:10 – “If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go. If anyone is to be killed [or ‘kills’] with the sword, with the sword he will be killed. This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints.” (NIV)
All of this is to show that, in the Parable of the 10 Virgins, when Jesus speaks of the virgins falling asleep during their wait for the Bridegroom, I believe He is painting a picture of the weariness that will overcome Christians in the last days as they face the worst that Satan can throw at them, just as the disciples were overcome by sorrow in the Garden of Gethsemane.
And at midnight…Literally, in the middle or midst of the hours of darkness; the deepest part of the night. Perhaps a picture of the worst part of the Great Tribulation, when things seem darkest.
a cry was heard: ‘Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!’ Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came…While many Bible teachers view the oil as the Holy Spirit, this interpretation does not seem feasible due to the constraints of the word picture that Jesus presents. The wise virgins took along oil for their lamps, while the foolish did not; and later, the foolish went off to buy oil for their lamps, which they were apparently able to do. None of this imagery is consistent with what we know of the person of the Holy Spirit or His ministry in the life of the believer. The Holy Spirit is not a commodity to be bought and sold, as the Apostle Peter explained to Simon the Sorcerer in no uncertain terms (see Acts 8:9-24). Nor can we fill ourselves with the Holy Spirit, whereas it was up to the women in this story whether they took any oil with them. Nor can we simply turn the Spirit on and off, whereas the women in this story were able to light their lamps of their own accord.
The lamp imagery that Jesus uses is much more consistent with preparation based upon His warnings and commandments, as outlined previously in Matthew 24. It was His intention that we should pay careful attention to His words, in order that they might serve as a guide to us; and at least one well-known passage of scripture reinforces this idea with similar imagery:
Psalm 119:100-105 – “I understand more than the ancients, because I keep Your precepts. I have restrained my feet from every evil way, that I may keep Your word. I have not departed from Your judgments, For You Yourself have taught me. How sweet are Your words to my taste, Sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through Your precepts I get understanding; Therefore I hate every false way. Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”The Word of God is the lamp and light by which faithful Christians are able to find their way through the darkness of this life, and the instructions provided in Matthew 24 are for the coming Great Tribulation – the greatest period of darkness the world will ever know. As difficult as that time will be, those who hold fast to the Lord’s warnings will know what to expect and how to weather the storm. His teachings will be the lamp and light by which the wise will find their way. The foolish will not be so fortunate.
And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.’Under ordinary circumstances, a person who has no light of their own can follow along by the light of someone else’s lamp, but such is not the case in this parable. Here, it was necessary that each of the women have her own light. This is instructive for us in that it shows that every Christian’s walk of faith is an individual journey. No one else’s faith can suffice for you; you must believe and follow the Lord for yourself.
So it will be at the end of the age as well. The wise will endure and overcome through personal faith, being watchful of the times and having prepared themselves in advance according to the Lord’s teachings. But the foolish will discover that their lamps will go out at the worst possible moment because they were not ready to endure a long night.
And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open to us!’ But he answered and said, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.Our coming Kadesh Barnea
As we have already seen, I believe that the foolish virgins described in Matthew 25 represent Christians who are disobedient to the Lord’s command to prepare for His coming, and it behooves us to note that the scriptures often equate disobedience with unbelief. A prominent example of this can be found in the book of Hebrews:
Hebrews 3:5-11 - "And Moses indeed was faithful in all His house as a servant, for a testimony of those things which would be spoken afterward, but Christ as a Son over His own house, whose house we are if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm to the end. Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says: ‘Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, In the day of trial in the wilderness, where your fathers tested Me, tried Me, and saw My works forty years. Therefore I was angry with that generation, and said, 'They always go astray in their heart, and they have not known My ways.' So I swore in My wrath, 'They shall not enter My rest.'"This is a reference to Israel’s rebellion at Kadesh Barnea (see Numbers 13-14).
Hebrews 3:12-19 - "Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called "Today," lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end, while it is said: "Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion." For who, having heard, rebelled? Indeed, was it not all who came out of Egypt, led by Moses? Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief."In spite of all that God had done for them in delivering them from Egypt and sustaining them in the wilderness with many miracles, and in spite of the urging of godly men like Joshua and Caleb, when it came time to enter the promised land the bulk of Israel turned away in rebellion (being in great fear of the Canaanites who inhabited the land). Some even proposed that they choose a new leader and return to Egypt (Numbers 14:1-4). In His wrath, God denied them entrance to the land, promising it instead to their children (and to Joshua and Caleb); and in referencing this incident in Hebrews, the apostle is challenging his readers to avoid the same trap of disobedience resulting from unbelief.
The Church will face its own Kadesh Barnea in the coming Great Tribulation, at which time believers will have to decide whether they will hold to Christ and move forward in faith, forsaking everything for Him, or else “shrink back to destruction” (Hebrews 10:39). And as most of Israel fell short of the promised land due to unbelief, so Jesus warns us that many who profess His Name will indeed fall short of the kingdom in the time of the end. Because of deception and persecution, they will be “offended” (from the Greek skandalizō, meaning to stumble due to an impediment, like tripping over a rock) and will turn away, even to the point of hating and betraying one another. They will abandon the Lord because they will not trust Him to sustain them through this time of trial. They will forget His power and promises in the face of terrible times, seeing nothing but their temporary situation and what they stand to lose by remaining faithful to Christ. Others will be caught up in the affairs of the world and will be taken off-guard and overwhelmed.
Scripture warns us of these dangers repeatedly:
Luke 8:11, 13-14 – “Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God… But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation [or testing, proving] fall away. Now the ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity.”
Mark 8:34-35 – “And when he had called the people [unto him] with his disciples also, he said unto them, ‘Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it.’”
Luke 14:26-27 – “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.”
Luke 17:26-33 - "And as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be also in the days of the Son of Man: They ate, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise as it was also in the days of Lot: They ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built; but on the day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed [them] all. Even so will it be in the day when the Son of Man is revealed. In that day, he who is on the housetop, and his goods [are] in the house, let him not come down to take them away. And likewise the one who is in the field, let him not turn back. Remember Lot's wife. Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.”
Luke 21:34-36 – “But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly. For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man."The Flock is Ripe for Scattering
Unfortunately, in spite of the plain warnings of Jesus and His apostles, the modern Church is woefully unprepared to face the trials to come, the great Kadesh Barnea at the end of this age. Lulled into a false sense of security by “easy believism”, “prosperity” teachings, unconditional eternal security and the constant assurance of well-known prophecy teachers that the Church will not see the Great Tribulation because “Christ wouldn’t beat His wife,” the Church (particularly in America) is largely complacent and materialistic, a flock ripe for scattering when the wolf finally arrives.
Indeed, Jesus’ letter to the church at Laodicea might well have been written to us:
Revelation 3:15-17 – “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, 'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing'--and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked…”Material goods are not evil in and of themselves, but the love of them in place of the love of God and His things is most certainly evil, and it will keep many out of the kingdom:
Matthew 19:23-24 – “Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’"
Luke 12:16-21 – “Then He spoke a parable to them, saying: ‘The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, 'What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops? So he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, [and] be merry.’ But God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?' So [is] he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.’"Be honest: think of your local congregation and ask yourself: how many will stand when serious persecution comes? When it’s no longer convenient to be a Christian? When believers will gather together in secret to mourn and pray, rather than for refreshments and ‘movie night’? When their dearest friends and family turn hatefully against them? When those who once sang hymns with them on Sunday morning turn them in to the authorities? When the choice is Jesus or your life, Jesus or your possessions, Jesus or food and medicines, Jesus or being warm at night, Jesus or decent clothes, Jesus or a roof over your head, Jesus or the approval of friends and family?
Watch and Pray – Warn the Church
Brothers and sisters, the hour is late. The times in which we now live strongly resemble Jesus’ description of the “beginning of sorrows”; and we can ill-afford to forget what the Lord said would follow that time:
“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake. And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold.”Given the current climate on the world scene, this may happen quickly, possibly even as the result of one specific incident that could turn the nations of the world against anyone who openly follows Jesus Christ. There may be very little warning, very little time to prepare. Christians who are caught off-guard could easily panic and succumb to the temptation to forsake the faith in order to save their lives and/or possessions, particularly if they find that their own friends and family have turned against them and their old comforts and securities are gone. Some will turn aside to follow false prophets who will deceive them with demonically-empowered miracles. Those who have been taught that they will not experience the Great Tribulation may turn against the faith in bitterness, angry with the churches that taught them and the Jesus that did not come for them when they thought He would. They, too, may become “enemies of the cross of Christ,” even as those over whom the apostle Paul mourned in his day.
The Parable of the 10 Virgins isn’t just a quaint story that Jesus told to amuse His disciples or a puzzle He left for theologians to solve; it’s a deadly serious warning, and we dare not ignore or misunderstand it. Prepare yourself now, mentally, emotionally and spiritually (and help others to prepare) to surrender everything, and, if need be, everyone, for the sake of Christ and the hope of His kingdom.
The Bridegroom is coming. Don’t wake up at midnight and find that your light is going out because you weren’t ready!