The enigmatic Parable of the Ten Virgins seems loaded with potential secrets on the end times, but few of us are sure we understand it. The wedding feast at the Lamb’s Second Coming, the oil that is needed to enter the feast or Kingdom, the "virginity" and the mysterious “go buy” command that throws us for a loop on our ideas for the oil...what does it all mean? What are we missing when we are confused about this and other parables of Jesus? Find out and puzzle no more on what you need to do to enter the kingdom of God.
Several readers of my book have emailed me recently asking for help on the Parable of the Ten Virgins from the Olivet Discourse (Mt 24-25). Here's one letter:
Hello Tim, the subject of the 10 virgins keeps being forefront in my thoughts – for the last 6 months or so (& also with an old gentleman at my church to whom I have become closely bonded).
A few weeks ago as I was listening to a reference to Matt 25 & as I read v.9 (Matt 25:9 - “But the wise replied, There will not be enough for us and for you; go instead to the dealers and buy for yourselves”.), I suddenly thought of Rev 13:17 “So that no one will have power to buy or sell unless he bears the stamp (mark, inscription), [that is] the name of the beast or the number of his name.”
I understand this to confirm that the wedding feast happens BEFORE the beast insists on his mark being used, because I can't accept that the 5 foolish virgins would have the mark of the beast, plus the wise ones would have acquired their oil a short time before.
This is a great example of the kind of uncertainty conveyed all the time about the difficult words of Jesus such as the parables. Many have to admit they do not know what to make of many of Jesus' parables, even after considering them carefully for a long time. This kind of impenetrability points to something fundamental being missed. In this article, we will explore one key to understanding the difficult words of Jesus that help with the parables especially.
Two Extremes of Parable Confusion
We can identify two different approaches that the confusion can come from. The first or literalist approach wonders if the details inside the parables are literal examples that will transpire when the event portrayed in the parable comes about. One parable, of Lazarus and the Rich Man, is not even considered a parable according to this way of thinking, but a literal depiction of the afterlife (Luke 16:19-31). (If so, then it teaches if you ever end up in hell, you should ask for some water for your tongue like the rich man did to bring yourself great relief!)
The idea above comes from the literalist camp. The idea is that maybe the “go buy” advice in the parable will play out literally with the actual event. Under that assumption, either the wedding feast must commence before the Great Tribulation when the Mark of the Beast that controls buying and selling is rolled out or the wise virgins are cruelly telling the foolish virgins to go take the Mark of the Beast (so they can buy oil)! In other words, is one of the hidden intents of the Parable of the Ten Virgins to tell us that the timing of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb is pretrib?
At the opposite extreme is the symbolic approach. This approach poses that everything in the parable can be a symbol for something else. In this view, some or all aspects of the parable have been carefully chosen to convey some secret meaning that the astute must figure out. Consequently, this paradigm has produced every imaginable meaning for the many parts of this parable, and other parables, too.
You probably have heard many such interpretations for the Parable of the Ten Virgins alone. Some say the oil represents the Holy Spirit. Others object and say, no, you cannot buy the Holy Spirit and so they suggest it means something else, say, wisdom or "keeping Torah." (Note that this last example is a mix of literal and symbolic. “Buy” is taken literally, but the thing bought is taken symbolically!)
Parables – Making the Bible Hard On Purpose
But do not let this confusion get you down if you have suffered from it, too. It actually is by design. People struggling with the parables might take comfort in reviewing what Jesus plainly stated about the purpose behind his use of parables (Mt 13:10-13):
Matthew 13:10-17, 34-36, 51 (HCSB) — 10 Then the disciples came up and asked Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” 11 He answered them, “Because the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know, but it has not been given to them. 13 For this reason I speak to them in parables, because looking they do not see, and hearing they do not listen or understand. 14 Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says: You will listen and listen, yet never understand; and you will look and look, yet never perceive. 15 For this people’s heart has grown callous; their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; otherwise they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn back— and I would cure them. 16 “But your eyes are blessed because they do see, and your ears because they do hear! 17 For I assure you: Many prophets and righteous people longed to see the things you see yet didn’t see them; to hear the things you hear yet didn’t hear them. ...34 Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables, and He would not speak anything to them without a parable, 35 so that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled: I will open My mouth in parables; I will declare things kept secret from the foundation of the world. 36 Then He dismissed the crowds and went into the house. His disciples approached Him and said, “Explain the parable of the weeds in the field to us.”...51 “Have you understood all these things?” “Yes,” they told Him.
Clearly, this passage reveals that the goal of the use of parables in place of plain explanations was to add a layer of obfuscation to Jesus' teachings.
But there is another implication of this passage that is hard for us to accept. Yes, only the apostles really fully understood everything that Jesus was teaching because he took them aside privately and made the meaning plain. The rest outside this inner circle were mostly left confused or with only partial understanding. And that includes us today.
We all want to believe that we, like the apostles, are the inner circle who can understand Jesus just fine. However, we simply do not have a record of everything that Jesus taught and explained to the apostles. Therefore, as we see with the Parable of the Ten Virgins (which has no record of its private explanation) most Christians are left in confusion and division as to the meaning.
The Culture of the Parable's Audience
To make matters worse, in reality, we are confused today on some basic things that Jesus' hearers understood just fine. That is because, like any speaker, Jesus used cultural references that his audience was familiar with. If you do not understand these cultural references, you will come to very strange conclusions about what Jesus was teaching. And this cultural factoring is exactly what is overlooked by the two aforementioned camps, making it an important key to understanding.
If we factor in this historical context, we can catch up to the first-century hearers of Jesus and no longer be at such a disadvantage. Then, we can search out all the sayings of Jesus and the consensus of the entire Bible to unlock the parables. Let's not forget that Jesus' original hearers did not have the NT nor their own personal copy of the OT. That represents quite a disadvantage compared to us. With these two factors of historical and grammatical context addressed together, we can successfully understand this Parable of the Ten Virgins and all parables of Jesus.
Part of the grammatical-historical method of interpretation is, of course, paying attention to the historical context. You need to find out what the passage of the Bible meant to the historical audience it was originally given to. They had their own culture and ideas that played into what the speaker said and how the audience interpreted his words.
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The Biblical context is important as well. Some of the parables cannot be understood in a vacuum. You need to read the surrounding, related or similar parables or sayings of Jesus to fill in the gaps. In this case, Jesus gives four parables to explain to his disciples how and why they should be prepared for his coming: the homeowner and the thief (Mt 24:42-44), the good and wicked servants (Mt 24:45-51), the ten virgins (Mt 25:1-13), and the talents (Mt 25:14-30). If you only heard the Parable of the Ten Virgins and not the others, you may come to some very strange conclusions on what the missing preparation (a lack of oil) represents. (More on this later.)
The Parable of Ten Virgins Updated (For 21st Century Western Ears)
To help break through the cultural barrier, I'm going to do something that some might consider heretical. I will attempt to update this classic parable for our modern day, Western, high-tech, consumer culture.
Imagine Jesus was alive today and trying to teach us the important message of being prepared always for his coming. What slice of life would he employ to illustrate and emphasize this lesson? That's hard to answer. I had to rack my brains to find anything with elements close to those in Jesus' story (and naturally gained a greater appreciation for how elegant his parables were). So with my apologies to Jesus, here is my modern rendition of his parable:
The Parable of the Two Shoppers
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like two friends who took their credit cards and went out early to get in line at the mall on the morning of the latest iPhone release. One was foolish and one was wise. When the foolish took his credit card, he did not take much cash with him. But the sensible one took plenty of cash with his credit card in his wallet. When the hour came and the store opened up for business, they announced that the credit card communications network was down and only cash would be accepted. When the foolish man heard this, he asked his wise friend to loan him some cash. The wise man replied, “No, I did not bring enough cash for both me and you. Go instead to the ATM and withdraw cash for yourself.” When the foolish man returned with cash in hand from the ATM, the line was gone and the product had already sold out. Then those who were ready with cash went home joyfully with their iPhones in hand. Later the foolish man came to the store manager's door and knocked, “Manager, you must have one more back there for sale.” But he replied, “No, in fact, we do not know when to expect anymore--except it will be after Christmas.”
Therefore be ready, because you do not know ...
I will admit I am not completely happy with my modern parallel because it lacks the unknown time element. The ideal modern scenario would be one where your money runs out with time just as the oil ran out for the virgins as the night progressed. This emphasizes being fully ready for however long time goes.
That weakness aside, it is at least modern and understandable. If you heard such a parable from a prophet of God teaching on the Kingdom of God, you could instantly recognize the scene and deduce the lesson he's trying to convey. It tells you that you have one chance to make it to the kingdom and if you really want it, you must be ready to be there by making all diligence in righteousness (Heb 11:6). Just as a person who really wants that latest must-have hot gadget for Christmas would make sure nothing can go wrong in his attempt to buy it the day it comes out.
Now, upon hearing a modern slice-of-life parable like this, how tempted are you to read into its specific elements secret meanings? Is the number of two friends significant? Does the cash mean something special? Could cash be the Holy Spirit? (Some might argue that today, given how they think credit card usage is usury and wrong.) Does ATM stand for something special?
Not very tempting areas of inquiry, right? Why not? Because you are familiar with all these concepts and you understand them all to be normal parts of a common modern situation. You don't see them as a contrived situation that would never happen but put there to encode secret meanings and messages. You instead recognize there is one point being made about being diligent in your efforts to enter the kingdom.
The Parable of the Ten Virgins' First Century Eastern Culture
What most do not realize is that, likewise, the setting of the parable that Jesus used was not contrived by him. It is not an allegory that he invented. He was using the actual common everyday scenario that his audience would readily recognize and relate to.
This insight should be a revelation for people currently in either of the two camps above. They imagine he concocted elements of this story to symbolically or literally paint an accurate end time setting. Why? Because the setting of the parable, a party of ten virgins going to a wedding in the night at an unknown time after sleeping together seems highly irregular and therefore contrived to our Western 21st Century ears.
However, it is not contrived. It turns out to describe the normal wedding customs of Palestine at that time. This is one case where the use of good commentaries is extremely beneficial. They are great for shedding much-needed insight on the life and times of Jesus and his audience who the parables came to:
There was a wedding in the village. A wedding story with no mention of the bride seems very odd to us, but different times and different lands have different customs. Just possibly she does receive a mention, but if so, only in passing; some authorities for the text of Matthew 25:1 say that the ten maidens "went to meet the bridegroom and the bride." The ten maidens do not appear to have been bridesmaids, or even specially invited guests; they were girls of the village who had decided to form a torchlight procession and escort the bridegroom and his party to the house where the wedding feast was to be held. They knew that, if they did so, there would be a place at the feast for them, so that they could share in the good cheer. To this day there are parts of the world where a wedding feast is a public occasion for the neighborhood, and all who come find a welcome and something to eat and drink.
— Hard Sayings of the Bible
The setting for this parable was a typical Jewish wedding ceremony. In Israel, as well as in most other parts of the ancient Near East, a wedding was the most celebrated social event. Virtually everyone in a village or in a neighborhood community of a large city would be involved as a participant or as a guest. It was a time of great happiness and festivity.
A Jewish marriage consisted of three parts, the first of which was the engagement. Most often arranged by the fathers of the bride and groom, the engagement amounted to a contract of marriage in which the couple had little, if any, direct involvement. The second stage was the betrothal, the marriage ceremony at which the bride and groom exchanged vows in the presence of family and friends. At that point the couple was considered married, and their relationship could be broken only by formal divorce, just as if they had been married for many years. If the husband happened to die during the betrothal (think: engagement), the bride was considered a widow although the marriage had not been physically consummated and the two had never lived together. The betrothal could last for many months, sometimes a year, during which time the groom would establish himself in a business, trade, or farming and would make provision for a place for the couple to live.
At the end of the betrothal period the wedding feast would be held, and it was in the feast and its related celebrations that the entire community became involved. This festivity, which could last a week, began with the groom's coming with his groomsmen to the bride's house, where her bridesmaids were waiting with her. Together the bride and groom and their attendants would then parade through the streets proclaiming that the wedding feast was about to begin. The procession was generally begun at night, and lamps or torches were used by the wedding party to illumine their way and to attract attention.
At the end of the feast period, a close friend of the groom, who acted much like a best man, would take the hand of the bride and place it in the hand of the groom, and the couple would for the first time be left alone together. The marriage would be consummated and the couple would henceforth live together in their new home. It was that third part of the marriage rite that Jesus used as the framework for this parable.
The parable is not an allegory, as many interpreters have claimed. Every small facet of the story does not carry a mystical meaning that is subject to speculation and imagination. Nor does every part of the parable have application to Christian living, as devotionalists frequently maintain. Still less is the parable a confused and clumsy teaching effort on Jesus' part, as some liberal interpreters suggest. The fact that details such as the bride's identity and the place where the virgins slept are not mentioned has no bearing on the point Jesus was making. For His purpose, the story was clear and complete.
—MacArthur New Testament Commentary – Matthew 24-28
The Parable of the Unprepared Wedding Crashers
I think much confusion over this parable comes because of the wedding setting itself. On the one hand, it is odd to have ten virgins, no bride and no set time for the wedding so it seems contrived. On the other hand, it is reminiscent of how we are told that we will be the bride of Christ or how the saved will attend the marriage supper of the lamb. With that concept in our mind as we read this, we easily read into it more than is intended. We imagine it to be an actual portrayal of our own future wedding with Jesus and how it comes about.
But in doing this we are making the mistake of taking things out of context. “Let the Bible interpret the Bible” is not a foolproof or complete approach, especially the way many Christians use it to draw (and justify) any sort of connection between verses they like. It takes skill and wisdom to apply it correctly and not come to false conclusions that seem justified because they came about purely by connecting verses. Therefore, before we pair up Biblical passages like these two wedding references, we first need to understand what we are dealing with using the cultural background. In doing so in this case, we would have realized that this parable is about uninvited guests who would have been welcome to “crash” a wedding if they had been prepared when it started. This is not the same thing as what we picture ourselves as, the ones invited to the marriage supper or to marry the groom (Rev 19:7, 9). That realization might have helped avoid that confusion on the purpose of the parable that I myself had when I first read it in my teens. (Many people I have spoken to have mistakenly thought that with no bride mentioned, the ten virgins were the ones to marry the groom! Some even think the parable is condoning polygamy--yikes!)
The true parallel to draw from the parable is that we need to be always ready for our entry into the kingdom at an unknown date in the future, just as the first-century Jewish people had to be prepared if they wanted to respond to the announcement of a wedding feast in their town. That is the admonition of the parable, tacked on by Jesus at the end of its torch procession story. Thus, whether there will be buying and selling when that day comes or what the requirement that the oil represents is, is beyond the scope and intent of the parable.
In fact, everything beyond the central admonition already covered is outside the purpose of the parable. It would be adding to or reading into Scripture to allegorize parts of the story for further meaning. As you study the parables carefully using historical-grammatical interpretation, you will find this to be typical of all of Jesus' parables. Most are used to make a single point that the realistic or uncontrived story is used to illustrate. (Even the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man was not completely imagined by Jesus but borrowed heavily from Egyptian and Jewish ideas on the afterlife.)
By the way, this also means that this parable does not necessarily end with the rapture. With the focus on the rapture in Christian eschatology, it's natural to conclude that this must be where it ends. The mention of a wedding feast coming right after the preparation cut-off reinforces this idea as the rapture is followed by the wedding feast of the Lamb and his bride in Revelation 19. However, again, the parable does not teach what the actual preparation cut-off event is. That's beyond its scope. We have to look to other passages for that detail. If you understand that the rapture comes 3½ years after the Great Tribulation begins and that God saves his people on the earth through it in a single prepared place (Rev 12), then you can see that the preparation cut off cannot be the rapture. The cut-off must be at the last moment that people can make it to the safe place on earth. Jesus identifies this last chance event as the Abomination of Desolation.
The Meaning of the Oil — In Context
There are several parables that repeat the same warning about the cost of being a casual or foolish believer. In this case, it is interesting to note that while the parable does use the extra torch oil to remind us about making our own preparations to always be ready for the Kingdom, it stops short of telling us what these preparations are.
This is probably why so many are tempted to allegorize the meaning of oil into something like the Holy Spirit, wisdom, Torah, salvation, etc. The parable indeed does seem very incomplete on its own at first. In a way it is. But the purpose of the parable is not to teach us how to be ready, or what is needed to be ready, but rather the importance of being ready at all times for an event of an unknown time that ruthlessly bans latecomers.
By the way, the nature of our readiness is covered in other parables. Even the previous parable to this one sheds much light (Mt 24:45-51). It tells us to be doing our master's will until he comes, rather than backsliding into wickedness. If there is any doubt on what Jesus' will is, all you need to do is consult the rest of his many words. My favorite summary verse is found in Luke 8:21 which says:
“My mother and brothers are those who hear God's word and put it into practice."
And, again, this is where we have the advantage over the first-century hearers of the Parable of the Ten Virgins. Not only did they not have a New Testament, but they also did not have much access to the Old Testament either. Only the rich or the synagogues had the money to buy the skins and the time of a scribe needed to make a copy of the Hebrew Scripture. Without this, they had less chance of making sense of a lot of what Jesus taught. (But then, as now, the important points on salvation or how to enter the kingdom did not require a Ph.D. to understand or follow.)
What at first seems to be a carefully contrived allegory of great import for students of end-time prophecy, turns out to be as simple as its last verse, “be alert for you know neither the day nor the hour [time].” It's ironic that despite hammering this message so many times in the gospels so clearly, people completely forget the reason for being prepared is that we do not know when Jesus is coming back or when we are going to have our lives cut short. Instead, they come up with other unintended messages from the parable, often twisting it into a rapture date setting prophecy.
Jesus was a master teacher and used a common and familiar scenario to drive home a single point. He wanted to emphasize once again as he had done in other parables the importance of always being ready for his coming which will come at a time we do not know far in advance. He did this powerfully by portraying the haunting disappointment of the backslidden who are refused entry into the kingdom when it comes.
The only real question left from the parable is whether we will be among the wise or the foolish on that day (or the day we die)? Will we switch our focus to living by God's will and words (essentially "love your neighbor as yourself" - Mt 7:12) or will we allow ourselves to get distracted, backslide and default back to following our own will (selfishness, self-serving, all with self-justification)?
If you want to get better at understanding and doing Jesus' instructions for those who consider him their Lord, check out my article on rapture requirements or my supporter study on the three keys to finally understand the Sermon on the Mount.
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