A certain nobleman

A grain of mustard
The marriage feast
The sheep and the goats
The ten virgins
The unforgiving creditor
The wheat and the tares
The good Samaritan
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The Ten Virgins

Following his baptism, Matthew records that Jesus journeyed northward to Galilee in his public ministry of `preaching the gospel of the kingdom.' [Matthew 4.23 NKJV] The apostle Luke, in agreement with this statement, expands it by saying that the kingdom Jesus preached about was the `kingdom of God.' [Luke 8.1 NKJV]

That Jesus was king elect of God's kingdom is borne out by his brief discourse with Pilate. At a time when denial might have secured his freedom, Jesus affirmed that he was king of the Jews. [Matthew 27.11 NKJV] This affirmation, incidentally, reminds us of something we tend to forget in our present day understanding of Christianity; namely, that Israel in Old Testament times, was God's kingdom on earth. [2 Chronicles 13.8 ]

The foregoing references - and others could be cited - give us a clear picture as to the gospel or glad tidings that Jesus preached. Jesus varied his style of preaching; sometimes it was by direct method and at other times in the form of parable. Matthew, after listing a number of parables in chapter thirteen of his record, makes the point:

`All this Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed he said nothing to them without a parable.' [Matthew 13.34 RSV]

We should not be surprised therefore to find in the Gospel records (excluding John) a prolific output of some eighty parables by Jesus.

Some of these possibly, are not parables in the strict sense of the word, but are rather extended metaphor. Nevertheless, even the metaphorical sayings of Jesus contain the germ of a parable. Smith's Bible Dictionary definition of a parable is, `a placing beside, a comparison, a similitude, an illustration of one subject by another.' A good example of this is the parable of The Sower. The scattered seed (the word of God) fell in four kinds of soil, representing four different kinds of people. [Mark 4.1-20]

The parable is a word picture; an illustration drawn from country life and surrounding objects. It was part of the linguistic culture of the Jews, because we find this mode of teaching used in Old Testament times. [Numbers 24.3-9; Ezekiel 17.1-10] Because the parable corresponded with their experience and observation of everyday life, it would the more readily seize upon their attention and be remembered. It would vividly lead them to things which had not yet entered their minds.

To think that the parables are only concerned with the importance of Christian virtues would be a mistake. For example, the parable of the Good Samaritan is generally taken to mean that we ought to do good deeds to our fellow-men whenever the opportunity presents itself. Obviously, Christian virtues and good deeds are not excluded, but the parables of our Lord are not superficial in their intent. They have a deeper meaning, as this article and others following in this series aim to show.

Turning now to the parable of the ten virgins, Matthew records it in these words:

`Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet 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. But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight 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, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut. Afterwards 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. [Matthew 25.1-13 NKJV]

The reader will have noted at the outset, reference was made to the kingdom of God, yet the parable alludes to the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God are interchangeable terms. Either way, Matthew is recording Jesus' words as he spoke about his Father's kingdom, which is to be set up on earth. [Matthew 6.10 NKJV]

Looking at this parable of the ten virgins today, it seems strange that the wedding ceremony was taking place at midnight. We are used to attending weddings in the day time and by midnight most of us have gone to bed. However, that was the custom in Bible times. Some details in the parable are not intended to have a hidden meaning. The fact that there were ten virgins and not a greater or lesser number is incidental to the story. Ten was the usual number of bridesmaids that took part in the marriage ceremony, in accordance with Eastern custom.

One view is that the ten virgins (bridesmaids), met at the house of the bride and from there went out to meet the bridegroom when his coming was announced. Another view is that they went out to meet the bridegroom at some convenient point along the road. Together, the whole party would then go to the house of the bride and escort her back to the bridegroom's house. Whatever account is correct, neither conflicts with the meaning of the parable. The arrival of the bridegroom was usually at night and as the hour was uncertain, the precise time was always unexpected. Conforming with custom, the bridegroom would send a man ahead of him to shout: `Behold, the bridegroom is coming'. So the bridal party would have to be at the ready to go out to meet him. It could happen at any time! Lamps of course, were very important items in the ceremony. It was a regulation that no one was allowed on the streets after dark without a lighted lamp. If the waiting was long, it would follow that the lamps would go out unless a supply of oil had been brought to top-up what was already in the lamp. Once the bridegroom had arrived and the door was shut, it would be unheard of to allow entry to late arrivals.

This parable, like other parables of Jesus, had an immediate application as well as a wider meaning applicable to our day and age. Jesus' first task was to preach the Gospel of the kingdom to his own people. He said: `...I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. [Matthew 15.24 NKJV] They were the chosen people of God. Their whole history should have been a preparation for the coming of the Son of God; they ought to have been prepared for him when he came.

The disciples alone, seeing that he was their rightful king, pleaded, `...Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?' [Acts 1.6 NKJV] Centuries had passed since their last king, Zedekiah, had been deposed and the nation taken into captivity by the Babylonians. The Divine assurance, however, remained on hand:`...Though I make a full end of all nations where I have scattered you, Yet I will not make a complete end of you...' [Jeremiah 30.11 NKJV] The disciples had not misunderstood Jesus' message; they were only premature in their expectation that he would reign as king at his first coming.

On the other hand, the rulers of the Jews were envious of Jesus and saw him as one who undermined their positions of privilege and authority. Their jealousy being so intense, they schemed to kill him. Anticipating his death at their hands and as a consequence of their action, Jesus made the pronouncement:`...Your house is left to you desolate...you shall see me no more till you say, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!"' [Matthew 23.38,39 NKJV]

The Romans fulfilled this prophecy when they sacked Jerusalem in AD 70 and scattered its people throughout the limits of the empire. In dramatic form, therefore, the parable speaks of the tragedy of the unpreparedness of the Jews of that generation. Effectively they were shut out from the company of those whom the heavenly Bridegroom welcomed and received.

That the parable is as relevant to our times as it was when first spoken, is evident from the words of Jesus referred to above. The refusal of the Jews to accept Jesus as their Messiah and all that it implied, has turned out to be of great benefit to us who are Gentiles. On this point Paul said: `...hardening in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.' [Romans 11.25 NKJV] The `fullness of the Gentiles' is the completion of the purpose of God in this present day and age. Paul played his part in preaching to the Gentiles the same Gospel of the kingdom which his fellow Jews spurned.

`...It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us...' [Acts 13.46,47 NKJV]

In understanding the Gospel of the kingdom, believers are like those virgins of the parable who, with their lamps, go out to meet the bridegroom, Their preparedness is determined by the amount of oil they have ready to keep the light burning. From the book of Psalms, we are left in no doubt as to the spiritual significance of the light emanating from the lamps of this parable. `Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.' [Psalm 119.105 NKJV ] Therefore, the word of God illuminates the darkness of the natural mind. When Israel of old wavered in their allegiance to God, the prophet Isaiah condemned his people for turning to mediums for guidance. `To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word (God's word) it is because there is no light in them.' [Isaiah 8.20 NKJV] Light is truth, as the scriptures make plain. Paul speaks of the `light of the knowledge of the glory of God...' [2 Corinthians 4.6 ] Believers are required to let that light shine as they declare the knowledge of God.

The oil is the combustion of the word of God. The light is the understanding of the truth and the love of it; but it can only be sustained by furnishing the mind daily by prayer and reading of God's word. As in the natural order, so also in the spiritual - combustion involves consumption and this principle is expressed in Paul's advice to the believers at Colosse: `Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly...' [Colossians 3.16 ]

The foolish virgins who had no reserve of oil, answer to those who are delighted with the truth of God's word on first receiving it. But their interest is short-lived and therefore the light becomes weaker. They make no progress in the knowledge of God and no growth in spiritual things. Hence at the crucial hour, they are not fit for entrance into the marriage feast. The lamp requires a regular supply of oil, without which it will eventually flicker out.

The foolish virgins desperately pleaded for oil from those who had prepared for a longer vigil. They had been wise enough to take a reserve supply. The lesson must be that, when the appointed time comes, we cannot catch up on delayed preparation. A student cannot do the revision he should have done when the examination is upon him. Again, a man cannot borrow a character; he must present his own. There are certain things we must win or acquire for ourselves, for we cannot borrow them from others. In character building, the apostle Paul considered that all his earthly advantages were worth losing to win Christ. [Philippians 3.8 ]

The fact that all the virgins, both wise and foolish fell asleep, implies that, with the best intentions one can muster, even the most dedicated of Christ's servants can have their momentary lapses. They can slumber in the sense that, though `The spirit indeed is willing...the flesh is weak'. [Matthew 26.41 NKJV]

This parable urges us to watch and prepare, for we cannot predict the exact time of Christ's second coming. Above all, it extends to us the gracious invitation to be at the marriage feast and to inherit the Kingdom of God.

Will you be ready?