Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 25 is a continuation of Matthew 24. Jesus’s disciples have asked Him when the Temple will be destroyed and what the signs will be of His judgment against Jerusalem. Jesus has been answering their question, and we are now able to look at the historical record and see that Jesus was correct in all of His predictions of the signs leading up to the desolation of Jerusalem, the topic He is explicitly addressing as He answers His disciples (cf. Matthew 24:2-3). He has shared two parables in order to help make his teaching clear for His disciples, one about a fig tree and one about a master and his slave. He shares two more parables concerning His coming in judgment against Jerusalem, the Parable of Ten Virgins and the Parable of the Talents. I want to treat each of these parable on their own.
Then the kingdom of heaven will be comparable to ten virgins, who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom (Matthew 25:1).
Jesus’s teaching simply astounds me. I have never seen any other teaching like it. I understand how easy it is for people to come to different conclusions when reading His words. Jesus beheld the most comprehensive and intrinsic genius of any person. He was the greatest philosopher, theologian, and public speaker to have ever walked the earth. He condescended from His place in Heaven to assume human flesh and teach these words. He spent His entire preaching career revealing truth about the Kingdom of Heaven. This is my 111th continuous installment methodically reading and exegeting Matthew’s Gospel. I have been in this gospel so long, and I feel like I still have only scratched the surface of Jesus’s teaching according to Matthew. Having been raised in a Baptist church where I always heard the ten virgins preached from a futuristic or historical perspective (two popular perspectives from which to read the eschatological passages of the New Testament), it was difficult for me to imagine why Matthew orders this parable with Jesus’s answer to His disciples concerning the toppling of one stone from another in Jerusalem’s Temple Complex. The most difficult thing for us to do when reading the Bible, the only truly perlocutionary text, is overcome our preconceptions and ask what the text is really about. We’ve all been conditioned. I always heard this parable as specifically referring to Jesus’s second coming, and there is certainly application to be made with respect to His second coming. We should be found ready. But, why did Matthew put this parable here as part of Jesus’s answer to the overarching question about the destruction of the Temple?
My question is a hermeneutical one. I don’t mind whether you agree with me about the placement of the parable. Many of you will not simply because of our current popular theological culture. If we wish to interpret Scripture literally (a term we use to signify a grammatical, historical approach to interpretation), we ask questions like, “Why did the author put this passage here when he ordered his writing?” Passages of Scripture do not lack context in the literature itself. They do not lack context in the historical moment they were written. Context is key.
Yet, many people jump in without context and with our tendency to oddly read ourselves into the text. They begin reading, “The kingdom of heaven will be comparable to ten virgins…” Obviously, without any context, Jesus is talking about our future; it must be His second coming. That’s what I thought for a long time because it is what I heard from other people. Let me place a disclaimer, here. I am not claiming that there is no second coming. I am not making any claim whatsoever about any possible events that may accompany or signify the second coming of Christ. I am claiming simply that this particular parable as Matthew has recorded it is not about the second coming of Jesus. Yet, the application is the same, be ready. Live an oil-filled life.
Jesus’s teaching about the kingdom of heaven in Matthew’s gospel is thematic. In fact, the kingdom of Heaven is the singular theme of Jesus’s teaching in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus began His preaching ministry by proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17b). If I were to ask you what it means that anything is “at hand,” you would reply by saying it is near or here. That is exactly what Jesus means. Jesus always spoke of the kingdom of heaven as if it was imminent while He was teaching. It is at hand during His public ministry in the First Century, and there is no way to faithfully squiggle around that claim. That’s why context is important. Jesus is talking about something that is at hand–it is near while He is teaching, especially so in Matthew’s gospel. We see that Matthew includes this parable in Jesus’s answer to His disciples about the destruction of the Temple during their lifetimes (cf. Matthew 23:36; 24:2, 34). It is not out of place.
There are many who read the New Testament and recognize the imminence of the kingdom of heaven in Scripture. They also hear that the kingdom of heaven refers to a time in our future, and we are already about 2,000 years removed from Jesus preaching ministry. Jesus taught that it was near. The New Testament authors all seemed to believe Jesus’s return was immanent and wrote about it as such. Yet, He has not returned, therefore the Bible must be wrong. I want to recommend, though, that Jesus was not wrong and neither were His apostles. I simply think many people have misunderstood the kingdom of heaven for the last 180 years. This popular teaching was virtually unseen before then. It is new, yet it is what most people know.
It’s important for us to know what the kingdom of heaven is. Jesus has transitioned from talking about the when in Matthew 24 to describing the essence of the kingdom in the form of parables. Then, the kingdom of heaven will be comparable to…
Then—at the time of the only event mentioned explicitly to be signified by all the signs of Matthew 24–the destruction of the Temple (cf. Matthew 24:2). At the time of the destruction of the Temple, the kingdom of heaven will be comparable to ten virgins. The kingdom is near. It is still in some way future as Jesus is teaching (40ish years before the stones of the Temple are toppled). At the time of this event, the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who take their lamps with them to meet the bridegroom–to be ready for the bridegroom to take them in marriage.
Five of them were foolish, and five were prudent. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the prudent took oil in flasks along with their lamps. Now while the bridegroom was delaying, they all got drowsy and began to sleep. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the prudent, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the prudent answered, ‘No, there will not be enough for us and you too; go instead to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they were going away to make the purchase, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding feast; and the door was shut. Later the other virgins also came, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open up for us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly I say to you, I do not know you.’ Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour (Matthew 25:2-13).
Notice how similar this parable is to Jesus’s explicit description in Matthew 24:37-40. At the moment of the destruction of the Temple, many people will die and many people will live. Many people will be found not ready even though Jesus warns them and gives them the signs to look for. Now, Jesus is talking about something deeper than a single event. He is talking about the nature of the kingdom of heaven. We see what the kingdom of heaven is comparable to, not a single happening. There are many who appropriate this parable to talk about an event such as a secret rapture. We cannot do that if we are interpreting the Bible literally. Again, I am not making a statement here about the possibility of a rapture. I am saying that this parable is not about a future rapture. It is about the nature of the kingdom. Five virgins are ready. Five are not. Oil often represents the Holy Spirit. Half of the virgins have oil in their lamps. When the bridegroom finally arrives, the other half are not ready. The five who are ready are given a place at the wedding feast. The five who are not get locked out. Jesus does not go into the particulars of soteriology. He simply says they are ready. So, that is the language I will use.
It is really easy to read way too much into parables. I don’t want to do that. Jesus doesn’t know (a relational term) the virgins who were not ready. He knows the one who were. So, the most I can say from this parable about the nature of the kingdom of heaven involves our being invited to the wedding feast. Then, when the kingdom of heaven becomes comparable to these ten virgins, people will be included based on Christ’s relational knowledge of them. That’s what changes. The kingdom of heaven isn’t like this before. When we read the Old Testament, particularly the Torah (Pentateuch), we see a system that is built on Law. Deuteronomy shows us that people will not be able to keep the Law and will, therefore, need to be saved by grace as a work of God alone. The Old Testament tells of a time when all nations will be saved by grace and called the people of God. I believe we also see evidence that, through the cross, all the people whom Christ knows like this in Old Testament times are also saved by grace, but those are particulars I’ll reserve for another time.
Do you notice what I notice about the text? Jesus is saying that at the time the Temple is destroyed, the work of the Temple ends. That is the end of the age. The Temple has fulfilled its purpose. God no longer needs it. He no longer wants people to approach Him that way. The perfect lamb has been crucified. It is time to demolish the ritual form of righteousness that was meant to point to Christ. Christ has come! Now, this makes sense—much more sense than having to do mental gymnastics to explain why the end of the age hasn’t come yet even though the New Testament seems to describe it so imminently. It’s just the most basic reading of the text in context.
Now, every Christian I know believes that people are saved by grace through faith. They may argue between monergism and synergism, but they believe the kingdom of heaven is currently like Jesus describes in this text. Every Christian I know believes that something changed with the coming of Jesus. They may argue dispensations vs. covenants or abolishing vs. fulfilling, but they believe what Jesus is teaching here. Christians may argue about whether to read the text futuristically, historically, preteristically (or partially so), or idealistically—or some combination thereof. But, they all believe we should live an oil-filled life while we anxiously expect Christ to return to His earth. We are more alike than different. That is the unity of our faith. We should try to understand particulars, but we should not let the minutia of theology divide us. Christ is not divided.
Whether at His return or upon your death, there is coming a time when the bridegroom will appear before you. Have you been lazy, wasting your life without the Spirit? Or, will you be found ready? Will you go in with Him to the wedding feast? Will you be stuck outside the house knocking? As for me? My lamp is full. I stand ready to trim the wick.