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. Jesus’s prophesies and parables in Matthew 24 and 25 tell us that His return will be sudden, swift and spectacular. Like Noah’s flood, it will be unexpected and unmistakable, final and inescapable. No last minute bargaining will be entertained on that day. 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 parables in Matthew 25 clarify what it means to be ready for His return and how to live until He comes, because every generation of believers should be spiritually prepared to usher Him in as King.
Although there is debate about the details of these eschatological parables, it’s hard to miss their essence: One day the door to God’s kingdom will shut. No one can borrow or buy spiritual preparation at the last minute, because each of us is responsible for our own condition. In this sense, faith is a matter of individual, not collective, responsibility.
Let’s hone in on the first of these parables.
The Ten Virgins/ Bridesmaids
The concept of ten virgins waiting for a bridegroom sounds strange to us, but when we understand a first century Jewish wedding, it becomes clearer and richer. Customary weddings were by no means instant or casual affairs. The air bristled with expectation, anticipation and preparation for the Groom’s arrival. Don Carson provides helpful cultural context:
“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.”
Actually, the marriage celebration started months before the wedding day, in contrast to many couples today who waltz off to Home Affairs to appear before a marriage officer. 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 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, the groom would return to fetch his bride and take her to the wedding feast. The lamps would be burning brightly, so the groom could be welcomed with joy and ushered to the feast, after which the groom would take his bride home and the marriage would be consummated.
And so, there was a considerable delay between the paying of the bride price and the wedding feast. As 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 Him.
Here’s the Bridegroom!
Christ’s parable of the ten virgins gives us a glimpse of the intimate bond that God has forged with his people and our eager anticipation of his return. What a privilege to watch and prepare for the Bridegroom in our own lifetime!
But Jesus says that we need “oil in our lamp” to do our job. Filling our lamps with oil would be like charging our LED torch before Stage 4 loadshedding sets in! Once the electricity goes off, it’s futile to plug the torch into the dead socket. Similarly, once the Bridegroom returned, there would be no chance of buying oil to fuel the wedding lamps.
But the metaphor of the bridegroom wasn’t an arbitrary one. Jesus pictured himself as the Bridegroom who will return to take his people to the home He has prepared for them. (John 3:27-30; Matt 9:15; Mark 2:19-20; John 14:2-3).
In our times, people are free to identify as whatever or whoever they feel is their authentic self, but Christ’s self-identity was particularly controversial in his day. It riled the Jewish religious leaders that Jesus called himself the Groom, as they knew that He was identifying as Yahweh.
Throughout the Old Testament, it was God who pictured himself as the Bridegroom of his people, Israel (Isaiah 54:4-6, 62:4-5; Hosea 2:19).
In the New Testament, Paul fleshes out Jesus’s metaphor of Himself as the Bridegroom. He 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).
Most commentators agree that the ten virgins represent those who profess to be part of God’s people, 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. No matter how long the delay seems, there will be a day when the door to the kingdom will shut (Matt 25:10-12). The time to be wise is now.
Spot the difference.
The foolish and wise virgins had much in common. They all professed to be virgins. 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 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 those 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 parable, but also a warning.
This parable is exciting, because it points to the perfect love story spanning from Genesis to Revelation. It reminds us that the Father sent his Son to secure his treasured Bride, the Church, for himself. He paid an exorbitant price to consecrate his Bride— the life of his own Son (1 Cor 6:20). This is the ultimate dowry or lobola for those who love Him.
What a privilege that our names are on the wedding guest list! We are invited to meet our Bridegroom (Rev 19:7-8; 1 Thess 4:16) and accompany him to the home He has prepared for those who love him (John 14:2-3). What an assurance to be bound to our Groom in this unbreakable relationship!
It is because of this covenant that Peter urges believers to be holy, watchful and awake as we await Christ’s coming. Being holy is integral to how the Bride makes herself ready:
“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).
But waiting passively is not enough to keep our lamp alight.
Christ’s delayed return is not an excuse for believers to sit around and speculate, quit our job, or become disillusioned with the world. Rather, it’s a motivation 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 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.
But this parable is not only exciting and motivating. It’s a snapshot of Christ’s return as Judge and King. The midnight cry will evoke a cry of joy, but also a cry of mourning (Matt 24:30; Matt 25:6; 11).
Jesus warns that when he returns, there will be participants in a church, Bible study or spiritual setting, enjoying the benefits of God’s people and tasting God’s goodness. They look like they belong to the bridal party, but will ultimately be exposed as gatecrashers and “foolish virgins” who do not have a relationship with the Bridegroom at all. They do not know him personally (Matt 25:12).
Jesus’s parable implies that no friend, pastor or family member can stand in as a proxy for our relationship with Him. It would be as insane as expecting a proxy to take one’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 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.
Lord, we know that your delay means we are still living in times of 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 your wedding hall may be filled with guests before the door shuts. Give us your Spirit’s grace and light, so that our lamps will always shine brightly with joy, peace, gentleness, faith, hope and love. Help us to hold tightly to our Bridegroom, as He holds fast to us.