Part 3 of series “The Second Coming”, by Rosie Moore
“The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” (Matthew 25:5-6; 13)
Jesus is coming back! We know this is true. If Jesus’s prophesies and parables in Matthew 24 and 25 are accurate pictures, His return will be sudden, swift and spectacular. Jesus’s appearing will be unexpected and unmistakable and His judgment will be final and inescapable. No last minute bargaining will be entertained on that day.
Jesus said that His return will be like the flood in Noah’s time; like a thief breaking into a house at night; like a returning house owner; like lightning illuminating the sky. That’s why the Lord instructs his followers to be spiritually prepared for his coming, “Therefore keep watch, for you do not know the day or the hour” (Matt 24:42; 25:13).
Jesus’s three parables in Matthew 25 clarify what it means to be ready for His return and how to live until He comes: The wise and foolish virgins with their lamps; the landowner who loaned money to his servants according to their abilities; and the separation of the sheep and the Goats are challenging parables. They challenge our beliefs and behaviour as we anticipate and prepare for Christ’s return. Every generation of believers should be spiritually prepared to usher Him in as King.
Although there is debate about the meaning of details, it’s impossible to miss the essence of these eschatological parables: There will come a day when the door to God’s kingdom will shut. No one can buy or borrow spiritual preparation at the last minute, because every person is responsible for his or her own spiritual condition. In this sense, faith in Christ is a matter of individual, not collective, responsibility.
Let’s hone in on the first of these parables today.
The Ten Virgins/ Bridesmaids
This parable sounds strange to our 21st century ears, but when we understand a 1st century Jewish wedding, its meaning becomes clearer and richer. Customary weddings were by no means instant or casual affairs. Don Carson gives us helpful cultural context to the parable:
“Normally the bridegroom with some close friends left his home to go to the bride’s home, where there were various ceremonies, followed by a procession through the streets—after nightfall—to his home. The ten virgins may be bridesmaids who have been assisting the bride; and they expect to meet the groom as he comes from the bride’s house…Everyone in the procession was expected to carry his or her own torch. Those without a torch would be assumed to be party crashers or even brigands. The festivities, which might last several days, would formally get underway at the groom’s house.”
One can just imagine the air bristling with expectation, anticipation and preparation for the Groom’s arrival. The marriage definitely didn’t just start on the wedding day– unlike couples today who waltz off to Home Affairs and find a marriage officer to marry them! The anticipation of a Jewish union began on the day that a father would arrange a bride for his son and then pay a pre-determined “bride price” on her behalf.
The son (the bridegroom) would return to his father’s house to make arrangements and prepare a home for his wife, while the bride prepared and consecrated herself in anticipation for the groom’s return to her house. Then the bride and groom shared a final glass of wine together before parting ways one last time.
Suddenly, at an unexpected moment, even in the middle of the night, the groom would return to take his bride to the wedding feast. The lamps were supposed to be lit and the groom was ushered in. Oil was the means by which they did their job of welcoming the groom and leading the way to the wedding ceremony.
After the wedding feast, the groom would take his bride to the home that he had prepared for her and the marriage would be consummated.
And so, there was a considerable delay between the paying of the bride price and the time of the wedding feast. This explains why Jesus says, “the bridegroom was a long time in coming” (Matt 25:5). The fact that we’re still waiting for Christ two millenia later is no surprise to Jesus, as he told us so.
Here’s the Bridegroom!
I find it beautiful that Jesus chooses to set the stage for his return against the backdrop of this intimate picture of marriage and the joyful signal of his appearance. It gives us a glimpse of the intimate love relationship that God has forged with his people and their anticipation of his return. What a privilege to watch and prepare for the Groom in our own lifetime!
But we need “oil in our lamp” to do our job. In these days of Loadshedding, it might be more apt to charge our LED torch before the darkness of Stage 4 sets in! Once the electricity goes off, it’s futile to plug it into the dead socket.
The metaphor of the bridegroom wasn’t an arbitrary one. On many occasions during his ministry, Jesus pictured himself as the Bridegroom who will return to take his people to the home that He has prepared for them. (John 3:27-30; Matt 9:15; Mark 2:19-20; John 14:2-3).
Of course, people today are encouraged to self- identify as anything they like, but Christ’s self-identification as the Groom was particularly controversial. It riled the Jewish religious leaders, who knew full well that Jesus was identifying as Yahweh.
Throughout the Old Testament, God pictured himself as the Bridegroom of his people Israel (Isaiah 54:4-6, 62:4-5; Hosea 2:19), and like any loving husband, God has always jealously guarded the exclusive devotion of his people– his bride (Deut 6:14-15).
In the New Testament, Jesus’s claim to be the Bridegroom is fleshed out by the Apostle Paul, who describes the Church as Christ’s Bride, for whom He laid down his life in order to sanctify her and present her “in splendour, without spot or wrinkle, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25-32).
This helps us understand why Christ mentioned ten virgins as the supporting roles in his parable. Most commentators agree that they represent those who profess to be part of God’s kingdom, his Bride. But there are foolish and wise virgins in Christ’s story. The wise ones took oil along with their lamps, while the foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. At the sound of the midnight cry and the returning bridegroom,
“All the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’
9 “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’
10 “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
11 “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’
12 “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’ (Matt 25:7-12)
Once the midnight cry comes, it will be too late to cross over from being a foolish virgin to a wise virgin. In other words, no matter how long the delay seems, there will be a certain day when the door to the kingdom will finally be shut (Matt 25:10-12). The time to be wise is now.
Spot the difference.
The foolish and wise virgins had a lot in common. They all professed to be virgins. They all “took their lamps”. They all professed faith to “meet the bridegroom”. And yet the foolish took lamps but no oil, while the wise did both (Matt 25:3-4). This was the only difference.
The Puritan, Thomas Shepard (1605-1649), preached for four years on this one parable! You can read his sermon notes here. Shepard described the wise as having been born again, filled with the Holy Spirit and the power of grace. In contrast, he described foolish virgins as “refined hypocrites in the visible church” when Christ returns, like the pretenders discussed in Hebrews 6:4-6,
“It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age 6 and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.”
The story of the Ten bridesmaids is an exciting and motivating parable, but it’s also meant to be a sober warning.
An incentive to prepare.
This parable is exciting, because it points to the perfect love story that spans from Genesis to Revelation. It reminds us how God the Father has sent his Son to secure his treasured Bride, the Church, for himself. He paid an exorbitant price for his Bride— the life of his own Son (1 Cor 6:20). This is the ultimate dowry or lobola for those who are in relationship with Christ by faith. It gives us a powerful incentive to persevere in faith.
What’s more, this parable reminds believers that our names are on the guest list at the great marriage feast between God and his people. We are called out to meet the Bridegroom one day (Rev 19:7-8; 1 Thess 4:16), to go with Him to the home that He has prepared for those who love him (John 14:2-3). What a privilege to be bound to our Groom in an unbreakable covenant relationship!
This covenant relationship is a powerful motivation. It is because of this ‘marriage’ that Peter urges believers to be holy, watchful and awake as we await Christ’s coming. Being holy and obedient is integral to how the Bride makes herself ready for Christ’s return:
“Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. 14 As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. 15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:13-16).
A sober warning.
But this parable is not only exciting and motivating. It is a sobering snapshot of the return of Christ the King. The midnight cry will elicit a cry of joy in some, but a cry of mourning and anguish in others (Matt 24:30; Matt 25:6; 11).
Jesus warns us that when he returns, there will be many participants in a church or Bible study setting, enjoying the fellowship and benefits of God’s people while tasting God’s goodness. They look like they belong to the bridal party, but are in reality, “foolish virgins,” who do not have a relationship with the Bridegroom at all.
Jesus identifies why the foolish will be spiritually unprepared: It is because they do not know him personally (Matt 25:12). They do not have their own relationship with Jesus. No friend, pastor or family member can stand in as a proxy for this relationship with Christ, just as no one can take a spouse’s place in a marriage.
It’s easy to walk and talk like a Christian, but the question that Jesus asks in verse 12 is not if we called Him “Lord, Lord” in our lifetime, but if we know Him and He knows us.
And so, the uncertain date of Christ’s final appearing is not a reason to be complacent or to skeptical. Rather, it’s an urgent incentive to accept Christ’s invitation to the wedding feast now, while the door is still open (Matt 22:1-14).
After all, for over two thousand years, the gospel invitation has been going out into the streets, to both the “good and the bad” (Matt 22:9-10). Until the day the door is shut, God’s wedding hall has infinite capacity for guests.
Waiting is not enough.
But waiting passively is not enough to keep our lamp alight.
Christ’s delayed return is not an excuse for a believer to sit around and speculate, quit our job, or become disillusioned with the world. Rather, it is a powerful incentive to live out each day as if it were our last, whilst also living as if our whole life stretched ahead of us. Our readiness as Christ’s Bride includes preparing the next generation for their service to the King.
We hold tightly to our Bridegroom, who is holding fast to us. We charge our lamps by living holy lives that look different from the world around us. We draw our fuel from the oil of the Holy Spirit and a deep affection for Christ. That’s how we will be wise.
Lord, we know that your delay means we are still living in times of mercy, patience and grace, when many more will enter your kingdom. We long to be part of that work! Make us faithful and wise servants who invite others to your banquet, so that your wedding hall may be filled with guests before the door finally shuts. May affection for Jesus fuel our lamps, so that we will light the path to the Bridegroom. Give us daily grace and light from your Spirit, so that our lamps will always shine brightly with joy, peace, gentleness, faith, hope, love, perseverance and eager expectancy for the return of our Lord Jesus.