Summary: An in-depth look at Marriage in the First Century and the dominant interpretations of the Foolish versus Wise Bridesmaids.

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose 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, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matt 25:1-13 ESV)

The Parable of the Ten Virgins has created much debate as to its meaning. The three elements that are agreed to by most commentators are that the historical setting is a first-century Jewish wedding, the bridegroom is Jesus Christ, and the parable describes His return.

The Greek word for “virgins” is ‘parthenos’ which means, in context, a female beyond puberty and not yet married. It has also been translated as ‘bridesmaid’ because there are two Hebrew words (‘amah’ and ‘shiphchah’) that covey the idea of service, handmaid, attendant, maid, or handmaiden in a wedding (see Gen 16:2, 29:24-29, 30:3,7-18; Ex 2:5; 21:20,26; Lev 25:6; Ezr 2:65; Job 19:15; Nah 2:7; Isa 24:2; Ps 123:2; Eccl 2:7).

There was a custom among the Jews to have a loyal friend and personal companion (best man) to help the groom, called the “friend of the Bridegroom” (Heb: shoshbin). The bride had companions called bridesmaids who were unmarried virgins to help her prepare for the groom (see Judges 14:20). Being one of the bridesmaids was a great honor. (Note: John the Baptist was called “a friend of the Bridegroom” because he prepared the way for the Messiah [Jesus] (John 3:29-30).

THE WEDDING CEREMONY

In the time of Jesus, marriages were always arranged. In ancient Israel, the marriage covenant (Heb: b'rith) was part of the civil law, and legal papers were written that defined the rights of the husband and wife. The festivities could last several days. The most significant emphasis of Jewish weddings was joy.

The groom would dress himself in festive garments on the wedding day, wearing a crown of gold, or silver, or flowers. The bride would have been bathed, purified, perfumed, richly clothed, adorned with many jewels by her bridesmaids, and would receive the blessing from her family and friends. She was also completely covered with a veil as she waited for the groom.

The groom and his friends would then go from his house from an unknown place at an unspecified time to the bride's father's house and claim the bride from her parents. The never-married women of Israel would be outside waiting along the way in the evening with their oil lamps lit, until the loud warning cry, "Behold the Bridegroom is coming, go out to meet Him," and they would meet him and proceed to the entrance of the bride's father's house. The bridesmaids would leave the bride, with whom they have been staying, and go out to meet the groom with torches.

The bride and groom would return to his house for the marriage ceremony (Heb: Chuppah, which means canopy), feast, and festivities, followed by a procession that would begin after nightfall, dancing, flowers cast about, and singing songs with joy and gladness. There were many friends and relatives, some of which traveled long distances. There would be great rejoicing and celebration late in the evening on the streets and when they arrived for the feast.

The bride was crowned and carried by the crowd on a piece of furniture through the streets. Everyone in the procession was expected to hold their own torch, either a lamp with a small oil tank and wick, or a stick with a rag soaked in oil on its end, which would require occasional re-soaking to maintain the flame.

Once they entered the house, the doors were shut tight, and the feast began with great dancing and celebration lasting as long as seven days. The ruler of the feast was responsible for all preparations and benedictions. Guests were given unique festive clothing to wear. The groom and bride were treated as king and queen and also wore garments of celebration. They would watch the festivities, drink wine, and even join in the dancing.

The groom would spread the tip of his upper garment over the bride under the canopy for all to see. They would then proceed to the wedding chamber, where the bride would remove her veil and consummate the marriage. Afterward, they would go to the feast.

S0, WHAT IS THE PARABLE ABOUT?

The questions most frequently asked about the parable are: “Is it about the return of Jesus for the Rapture of the Church, or is it about His return to set up the Millennial Kingdom at the end of the Tribulation?”

In the Old Testament, God pictures Himself as the “husband” of Israel (Isa 54:4-6; 62:4-5; Hosea 2:19). In the New Testament, Jesus is shown as the Bridegroom of the Church (John 3:27–30; Matt 9:15; Mark 2:19–20). The universal Church that is made up of both men and women is described in Scripture as the bride of Christ (Eph 5:25–32). However, it is interesting to note that a typical bridesmaid helps prepare a bride to meet the groom, which infers the Parable could be about those who are in Pastoral ministry. (Just sayin’)

Most interpreters understand the Parable is about Jesus returning at an unknown hour and people must be ready by becoming Born-Again through saving faith in Jesus - His death, burial, and literal resurrection from the dead (John 3:16; 14:6; Rom 10:9 and 10; 1 Cor 15:1-4; Eph 2:1-10).

“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope — the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good." (Titus 2:11-14 ESV)

In the Parable, all the bridesmaids had nodded off to sleep and were awakened with a great shout, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” When the five foolish virgins realized they didn’t have the oil to make their lamps brightly burn, they frantically asked the wise for their oil. The wise responded with a polite form of refusal and gave the reason for refusing because there could not be enough to go around. The foolish frantically went away to try and buy oil, and while they were gone, the groom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was closed to stay shut.

When the foolish returned empty-handed, they earnestly cried out at the door directly to the groom to admit them, “Lord, lord, open to us,” as if they had an intimate relationship with him (Gen 22:11; Ex 3:4; 1 Sam 3:10; Matt 27:46; Luke 8:24; 10:41; 13:25,34; 22:31; Acts 9:4). He answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you’” (Matt 25:13 ESV). The groom does not know them in the sense in which a good shepherd knows his sheep and is known of them (see John 10:14).

There are two dominant interpretations of the 10 Virgins.

1. WORKS Based - The five who were “foolish” (Gk: móros = study, dull, empty-headed, without wisdom) are those who lacked the living principle of faith because they said they were ‘Believers’ and appeared as one. They had faith, but it was without diligently maintaining the outward profession of good works, and therefore were ‘dead, being alone,’ causing their ‘lamps’ to run low on oil, burning dim until they ran out, and could not be reignited (James 2:14-17).

2. GRACE Based - The foolish five lacked a genuine conversion experience as a ‘Receiver’ of Jesus. Even the demons of Hell are believers – and they tremble at His name (James 2:19). The foolish represent false believers who enjoy the benefits of the Christian community without true love for Jesus. They hope that their association with Born-Again Christians (“give us some of your oil” - Matt 25:8) will bring them into the kingdom when their time on earth comes to an end.

The foolish are those who have “been enlightened” and “tasted the heavenly gift” and “shared in the Holy Spirit” and “tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” but do not have the Holy Spirit, who helps them produce “a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated” and then receive “a blessing from God” (see Heb 6:4-8 ESV).

Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matt 7:21-23 ESV).

It must be noted the word “‘never” is emphatic in the Greek and means never, never, never, ever. The exclusion of the foolish from the marriage feast is not temporary but final.

The oil used for burning lamps is a reminder of the special oil used in the tabernacle services and is most often a symbol of the Holy Spirit (Ex 27:20-21. The wise virgins who have the fullness of oil represent those who have truly been converted and Born-Again. They have saving faith and are determined that, whatever occurs, be it persecution or adverse circumstances for many years or even centuries, they will be eagerly looking, with great joy, to the coming of Jesus. They habitually do the things that accompany salvation (Heb 6:9).

Saving faith in Jesus will manifest itself in three aspects of our lives:

1. The fruit of the Spirit will begin to show continuously (Gal 5:22).

2. A desire for greater holiness and less sin will be apparent (1 Peter 1:15-16).

3. A consistent joyful looking for His coming will mark our lives (Heb 9:28; 2 Tim 4:8).

The Father gave every Born-Again Christian to Jesus as a gift of love because of what He willingly did on the Cross (John 17:6). They are now His possession, and He lives in them forever, and they in Him. That is their position. They were bought and paid for by the blood of Jesus that washed away all their sins.

The condition of the Born-Again Christina changes daily as the effects of living in a sinful world affect them, which requires repentance for reconciliation. Good trees can only bear good fruit. Only bad trees habitually produce bad fruit because they have “not seen” or “known God,” which is why Jesus will say He never knew them (1 John 3:6; 3 John 11; Matt 7:23). The Born-Again Christian is rooted in Jesus Himself. The test of salvation is growing good fruit and persevering (See Matt 7).

The Holy Spirit's responsibility is to see that every Born-Again Christian is ready and prepared for Heaven when the Bridegroom appears for them (Phil 1:6, 2:13; also 1 John 4:4). He is the one that prompts good works (see Ex 30:22-33; Zech 4:2,12; Acts 10:38; Heb 1:9; 1 John 2:20-27).

CONCLUSION - Are You Ready?

Being ready means preparing for whatever contingency arises in our lives and keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus at all times while we eagerly await His coming. The fact that all the virgins were nodding off to sleep when the call came indicates that it doesn’t matter what we are doing when Jesus returns. We may be working, eating, sleeping, or pursuing leisure activities.

The soon return of Jesus is a powerful motivator to personal holiness and diligence, which each generation finds in the possibility of His return at any time. The Church has known for 2,000+ years that Jesus is coming again.

The cry at the midnight hour that the bridegroom has come startled the slumberous bridesmaids like a “thief in the night” (1 Thess 5:2). It was believed among the Jews that the Messiah would come suddenly at midnight, just as their forefathers had gone out from Egypt and obtained their former deliverance at that very hour (Ex 12:29).

The return of the Lord will happen instantly “with a shout, with the voice of the Archangel and the trump of God” (1 Thess 4:16). Jesus, the heavenly Bridegroom, accompanied by the Angels and the friends of the Bridegroom, will lead His bride to the eternal home He prepared for them with everlasting joy and gladness.

Jesus ended the Parable with a warning, " Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matt 24:42, 25:13 ESV). This does not mean contemplating your navel, doing acts of contrition, traveling on a spiritual pilgrimage, or standing on a mountaintop gazing at the heavens (Acts 1:9-11). It means "to stay awake and be alert" (Matt 26:38-41).

Jesus never told us when the day of His return would be. The only sure way to be ready on that day is to be ready every day (Luke 12:10; 21:34-36; 1 Thess 5:6; 2 Peter 3:10; Rev 3:3).

Today is the day to repent of your sins and RECEIVE Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Then, PLAN your life as if He isn’t coming back for 100 years, but LIVE your life as if He is coming back today – because He just might - for YOU!