Studies On Christ’s Olivet Discourse
Dr. Frederick A. Tatford of East Sussex, England, is President of the Prophetic Witness Movement International. This is the tenth study in his extended series on Christ’s Olivet Discourse.
The Ten Virgins
Our Lord’s earlier illustrations emphasized the need for watchfulness in the light of His coming. His parable of the ten virgins, mentioned only in Matthew 25:1-13, is patently linked with the same subject, for He declared that then, or at that time, the kingdom of heaven would be compared to ten virgins, who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom and the bride. (The addition of the last three words is confirmed by a number of ancient authorities, including the Vulgate and the Pashitta.)
The lamps, or torches, would be fastened to poles and would normally be fed with oil from a small vessel constructed for the purpose and which would be carried for the purpose. In this case, five of the young women were wise and took an adequate supply of oil in the small vessels, but the other five foolishly omitted to take oil with them —possibly concluding that the waiting time would be short.
For some reason the bridegroom’s procession was delayed and the whole of the ten welcoming maidens became drowsy and fell asleep. But at midnight they were aroused by a sudden shout that the bridegroom was coming and that they, therefore, should come out to meet him. Their lamps were evidently going out and all the virgins naturally commenced to trim them and to replenish the oil. But the five foolish, having no oil, begged the others to share theirs with them to save their lamps from being extinguished.
The others, afraid that their supply would be insufficient if they shared it, refused and bade them go to the dealers and purchase for themselves. While they were away replenishing their supply, however, the procession came and the five who were ready and whose lights were shining went into the marriage feast with the bridegroom and the door was shut. When the other five returned and discovered what had happened, they cried out for the door to be opened, but the bridegroom replied that he did not know them.
Once more the Lord stressed the significance of His illustrations by His injunction, “Watch, for you know neither the day nor the hour when the Son of Man is coming.”
The Parable’s Background
The parable, which He had used to underline His exhortation, employed the essential features of the customary wedding celebrations of His day. The bridegroom’s father was responsible for the choice of the bride for his son and his selection was followed by a formal betrothal (similar to our engagement), which was confirmed by oaths and accompanied by the payment of a dowry to the bride and presents to her parents. Although the betrothal was binding, the actual wedding usually took place very much later (depending upon the age of the bride). This was conducted at the house of the bride’s parents and was celebrated by a feast of seven days to which friends and neighbours were invited.
After that came the “taking” of the bride. Clad in festive garments the bridegroom set out from his (or his father’s) house at evening, attended by his groomsmen (the “companions” of Judg. 14:11 or the “children of the bride chamber” of Matt. 9:15) and preceded by singers and torchbearers (Jer. 25:10). The company made its way to the house of the bride’s parents, where she and her maidens awaited him. From thence he led the bride and her maidens and the guests with rejoicing to his own (or his father’s) house for the marriage supper (Psa. 45:15).
The neighbours would flock out into the street to gaze at the procession and to join in the nuptial song. Maidens, who were friends of the bride and bridegroom and who had waited for their coming, joined the procession and accompanied the whole party into the house to enjoy the marriage supper, to which friends and neighbours had been invited. This feast usually continued for a further seven days.
The Lord’s parable related to the maidens who were waiting with their torches for the coming of the bridegroom with the bride, whom they would then accompany in the procession. Some commentators suggest that the reference was to the bride’s companions, but these would have remained with her in her home until the bridegroom’s arrival at the house, whereas those in the parable went out to meet the bridegroom and the bride.
The Parable’s Interpretation
It is frequently argued that the five wise virgins represent true believers in Christ, and that the five foolish ones are typical of mere professors. But all ten prepared in the first instance for the meeting with the bridegroom; all had lamps and all had to trim their lamps; all slept during the bridegroom’s delay and all awoke. If, as is commonly contended, the bridegroom is a symbol of Christ, and the bride of the Church, the virgins can scarcely represent Christians, either true or false. They can only represent others who have been invited to the marriage feast. It may be significant, moreover, that the word “know” used in Matthew 25:12 is not the one used, e.g. in Matthew 7:23, where our Lord declared that He did not know the false professors. It has rather the sense of approval or acknowledgment. The bridegroom in Matthew 25:12 disapproved the foolish virgins and their reprehensible failure. They were excluded from the procession and the feast, and entry was denied them because they were not ready when the bridegroom came.
The Lord’s words had no application to Christians who are not ready to meet Him when He comes to the air to remove His bride, the Church. When He comes, every believer will be caught up to meet Him in the air. Their rapture will not depend upon their fidelity or vigilance, but solely upon their personal relationship to Christ. Those who have been unfaithful will have to give account to Him at His judgment seat, but not one will be excluded from His presence.
The oil is commonly regarded as a symbol of the Holy Spirit and the lamp as a figure of the individual’s personal witness or testimony. Each of the virgins must initially have supplied oil to her lamp and each of them carried a lamp which was, at first, shedding its light in the darkness. Prima facie, therefore, they were believers, but with whom can they be identified if they cannot be regarded as members of the Church?
Dr. F. E. Marsh adopts a reasonable interpretation and one that is consistent with the context when he says, “The wise virgins are the godly Jewish remnant, who will be looking for the Messiah during the night of the tribulation, and who correspond to the ‘virgins’ of Psa. 45:14 and Rev. 14:4. The foolish virgins seem to represent the rest of the nation who are shut out of the marriage supper of the Lamb, but who afterwards come into blessing.” Our Lord’s words were patently intended primarily as a warning to the Jewish nation, although the message has obviously a significance for others also.
In occupation with the details, however, there is a danger of ignoring the vital point — the need to watch because neither the day nor hour is known. The Messiah has left this scene, but one day He will return, first to take His bride to be with Himself, but also to inaugurate the Kingdom for which Israel has waited. It behoves all to be watching and waiting for Him.