Theme: Your neighbor may be ready for Christ’s return, but are you?
This week’s lesson teaches personal responsibility for accepting Christ’s invitation.
“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.”
Keep watch! And be ready!
You might think that I overdid that point in the previous study of Matthew because of Jesus’ four illustrations all urging us to do precisely that. But I can’t have overdone it since, in Matthew 25, Jesus continues his teaching on the Mount of Olives by adding three more parables that also warn us to watch and be ready. The first is the parable of the five wise and five foolish virgins (vv. 1-13). The second is the parable of the talents (v. 14-30). The third is the story of the separation of the sheep and the goats (vv. 31-46). They are some of the best known stories in the Bible.
Each makes its own points. But taken together they intensify and even broaden Jesus’ warnings. For here, instead of speaking of people who were obviously saved or lost, like those who perished in the flood or the wicked, careless servant, Jesus seems to speak of people who look like believers and who even think they are, but who will not be ready when he comes.
We are going to be studying each of these parables in turn, looking for the specific teaching of each. But it is helpful to notice that they are also parallel stories and have several important things in common. There are three ways in which the stories are the same.
1. In each case the return of the Lord is sudden and unexpected. In the story of the wise and foolish virgins, the cry, “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” comes at midnight, when the women are asleep. The cry awakes them, and they rise up suddenly. In the story of the talents, the master returns, “after a long time,” when he is least expected. In the case of the sheep and the goats, the decisive moment arrives, “when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all his angels with him” (v. 31).
This is the chief point Jesus has been making from the very start of the discourse in chapter 24. The disciples wanted to know when these things would be, and Jesus replied that they could not know. They would see many “signs” that would not be signs of his coming, false Christs, wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution, apostasy, and false prophets. But when he actually does come, his coming will be so sudden and unexpected that no signs can be given. Therefore, they must be ready.
The story of the wise and foolish virgins is connected to the previous chapter explicitly because it ends with words that are a deliberate echo of verse 42: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” The parable ends, “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour” (Matthew 25:13). The story of the servants expands the much briefer story of the servants in Matthew 24:45-51. The parable of the sheep and the goats wraps up the entire discourse, drawing on words taken from the Lord’s description of his return in Matthew 24. In this chapter he also speaks of the Son of Man coming in his glory with the angels (v. 31).
2. In each case the Lord’s return results in an unalterable division between two groups of people. These are stories about the final judgment, and the root meaning of the word judgment is division. The Greek word is krisis, which we have retained in English with only a slight change in spelling. A crisis is an event that requires us to turn one way or another, to the right or to the left, forward or back. In this case, the division is between those who are ready when Jesus returns and those who are not ready. In the case of the women, five go into the wedding banquet and five are shut out. In the case of the servants, two are commended and one is judged. In the case of the sheep and the goats, the sheep inherit the kingdom which has been prepared for them while the goats receive eternal punishment.
3. In each case the people who are lost are utterly surprised at their rejection. This is most striking feature of these stories. The women who are shut out of the banquet can hardly believe that the door has been closed to them. “Sir! Sir!” they say, “Open the door for us!” But the bridegroom does not. The wicked servant thinks he has done the right thing by burying the talent he was given. He expects to be praised and is astonished that he is rebuked and cast out. The goats do not understand the Lord’s disapproval. “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” (v. 44).
When we think about this feature of the stories we realize that they are not about people who have no use for Christ or his gospel. They are about people who are part of what we would call the visible church. Like many in our churches today, these people think they are saved and that they are on their way to heaven, but their actual destiny is hell. Is it any wonder the Lord states his warning to “keep watch, and be ready” so forcefully?
What kind of people is Jesus speaking to here?
How are the three parables similar?
What is the root meaning of the word judgment?
Why will the return of Jesus be a crisis moment? Consider how those who think that every opinion is relative will react upon Jesus’ return.