The hymn we have just sung asks a pointed question. A question that I fear too often we dismiss in our daily lives. With all the concerns of living in the present moment - with all of the accompanying joys or frustrations - we fail to give much thought to the final moment. That moment when time, as we know it, will cease and eternity will begin. We have sung - "Jesus is coming to earth again..." This is vital to the Christian faith. We confess in the Apostles' Creed that Jesus will come to judge the living and the dead. We pray weekly together "Thy kingdom come." If I were to ask you: "Do you believe Jesus will come again?" I daresay that most of you would answer an enthusiastic "Yes!" But have you pondered the question that is the title of the hymn: "What If It Were Today?" What if in the next moment - even as my words fall upon your ears - Christ returned with the shout of the archangel and the trumpet blast? "Faithful and true would He find us here, if He should come today?" Would you be ready?
The readiness of his disciples is what Jesus in concerned about in the three parables we will look at over the next few Sundays. In Matthew 24, Jesus in response to the questions of the twelve unveils some of the signs of the times which will foreshadow his return in glory to judge the world. The images are dark and frightening. Now in Matthew 25, Jesus wants to make sure his followers are going to be ready when these events take place. He wants them to be ready when he will come to claim his own. He wants us to be ready.
Now before we jump into the parable of the ten virgins, I want to clarify some very important points. First, these parables are not addressed to the world in general. They are given directly to the Church. To those of us who gather week after week in God's house. Secondly, we need to know something about the Church to whom these parables are addressed. These parables are double-edged. They speak of a separation that will take place when Christ comes again. This means that right now the Church of Christ is composed of those who are true and those who are false believers. There are some perhaps within the sound of my voice who on that great and final day will receive not an everlasting reward, but eternal punishment. You need to realize this, in the church there will be until the end - wise and foolish virgins, faithful and unfaithful servants, sheep and goats. This is a harsh reality, but reality none the less. For that reason these parables serve two purposes. On the one hand, they serve to give assurance to the true believer that when Christ comes again for his people they will be welcomed into the wedding feast, they will share in their master's happiness and will receive a kingdom as their inheritance. These parables can be a great joy for the Christian. On the other hand, these parables must serve as a warning to those who falsely believe that they are part of the true Church of Jesus Christ. Unless these do the things that are required for salvation they will find themselves shut out, cast out and separated for all eternity. Clearly we are dealing with, in the next few weeks, some of the most crucial issues we will ever consider. Well all of this is preliminary to our study, let us turn our attention to the first of these parables. The Parable of the Ten Virgins.
(READ Matthew 25:1-13)
With the words: "At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like..." Jesus lifts a scene from contemporary Jewish life and applies it to deep spiritual truth. The scene which he chooses is a familiar one to the disciples. It is a wedding scene. We need to know a little bit about Jewish wedding to understand the significance of what takes place. Here is how
one commentator describes it:
Weddings were a time of joyous celebration...The festivities lasted a whole week. Regular duties and religious obligations were dispensed with by law so that the wedding party and all the guests would relish the full delight of the occasion. The high point of the week of wedding celebration was when the bridegroom came to the bride's house to take her to their new home. Great pageantry and drama had become a part of the tradition surrounding this event. The bride would ask 10 of her friends to be bridesmaids. Their special task was to be part of the processional from her house to her new marriage home. Usually this took place at night, so the major responsibility of the bridesmaids was to carry lamps to light the joyous way of the wedding party. The time when the bridegroom would come was kept secret. It was to be a surprise, and the bride and her bridesmaids were to be waiting expectantly.
Now it is obvious that Jesus in telling this parable and lifting this scene to a higher spiritual reality is casting himself in the role of the bridegroom. He is the one who having with his own blood bought the bride (the purified Church), is preparing to come and bring her to the marriage feast of the Lamb. And equally obvious is the fact that the virgins represent the church on earth (that mixed company of wise and foolish) who is waiting for that momentous event to occur. Thus we, those gathered in this place this morning, you and I, are numbered among the ten. And with the church universal we wait for the cry "Here's the bridegroom! Come out and meet him!"
On the surface, there appears to be no difference among those ten who wait for the coming of the bridegroom. All are invited members of the wedding party, all have taken their lamps, all are waiting for the shout that announces the coming of the bridegroom. Indeed all ten fall asleep during the delay. What this means for us is that superficially, we can not discern who among us is a wise or a foolish virgin. Who among us will be rewarded and who of us will be excluded. All of us are members of the church. We all take part in its worship, its education, its opportunities. We all at least give lip service to the fact that we look for he coming of Christ again. And like those weary virgins all of us at times fall asleep.
It is only in the moment of crisis. The moment when the shout goes forth that the crucial difference is made painfully apparent. Both the wise and foolish virgins awake to welcome the bridegroom - but alas only the wise have brought enough oil to light their lamps. The foolish virgins were not prepared. As one has put it: "Alike in outward things, the wise and the foolish, were unlike in an internal necessity, the lack of oil." What is it then, that separates the wise and foolish in the Church of Christ? What will make all the difference when Jesus returns? Oil in the lamp! And throughout Scripture, oil represents the Holy Spirit. Only those truly born again by the Holy Spirit will be ready when the Bridegroom comes again! "Absence of oil indicates the lack of salvation, a Christian profession without possession." It has been said: "By no means all who read the Bible, attend or even belong to a church, sing songs of salvation, male public profession of faith, even preach in Christ's name, are going to share in the blessings of Christ's return." As Paul writes of these foolish virgins: "[they] have a form of piety, but deny its power!" And as the foolish virgins found out - you cannot borrow another's oil - another's salvation. You must have it for yourself. You cannot trust in the faith of your parents, or your pastor or your church. You cannot rely upon membership papers or memory verses learned. Outwardly you may be the model of piety - but with no oil in your lamp it is useless. And as the parable points out - it will be too late to get that oil, that regenerating Spirit, when Christ comes back!
What follows in the parable are some of the sweetest and some of the saddest words in all of the Bible. Look at verse 10: "...the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet and the door was shut." How wonderful it will be on that day when Christ comes for his people and ushers them into that glorious feast of heaven. Imagine the joy of sitting down with the saints of God in the presence of Christ the King. Imagine the wonderful reunions that will take place as loved ones separated by death are brought together. I love how J.C. Ryle describes the Christian's great joy:
They shall be with their Lord, - with him who loved them and gave Himself for them, - with Him who bore them, and carried them through their earthly pilgrimage, - with Him, whom they loved truly and followed faithfully on earth, though with much weakness and many a tear." Then Ryle goes on to write: "The door shall be shut at last, - shut on pain and sorrow, - shut on an ill-natured and wicked world, - shut on a tempting devil, - shut on all doubts and fears, - shut, to be opened no more.
What a wonderful description! Surely John is right in Revelation when he records these words: "Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of Lamb!"
Yet even as these words leave a sweet savor in the mouths of the saints - the next words of the parable are equally as bitter to the ones before that locked door. "Later, the others also came. Sir! Sir! they said. Open the door for us! But he replied, "I tell you the truth, I don't know you!" Oh, the most devastating words anyone could ever hear. "I don't know you." To be waiting on the very doorstep of heaven and to find the door shut. To be rejected and turned away.
The poet Alfred Lloyd Tennyson captures the great despair of that hour when he writes:
"Late, late so late! and dark the night and chill!
Late, late so late! but we can enter still.
Too late, too late! ye cannot enter now.
No light had we; for that we do repent;
And learning this, the bridegroom will relent.
Too late, too late! ye cannot enter now.
No light; so late! and dark and chill the night!
O let us in, that we may find the light!
Too late, too late: ye cannot enter now.
Have we not heard the bridegroom is so sweet?
O let us in, tho'late, to kiss his feet!
No, No, too late! ye cannot enter now."
Dear friends, "Jesus is coming to earth again...What if it were today?" Will you be ready - with lamps lit eager to welcome the Bridegroom and enter the joy of that great wedding feast? Or will you be found foolish in that day - with nothing but emptiness to show? Only you can answer in your heart of hearts that deciding question: "Is there oil in my lamp?" Now is the moment to sure! Amen.