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5. The Parable of the Ten Virgins

Article contributed by

[John F. Walvoord, President, Dallas Theological Seminary, Editor, Bibliotheca Sacra.]

Matthew 25, the second and final chapter of the Olivet Discourse, is divided into three sections. The first two sections are the familiar parable of the ten virgins and the parable of the talents, concluding the section of illustration and application which began at 24:32. The final section, 25:31-46, predicts the judgment of the Gentiles after the second coming of Christ.

There is something, however, that ties all of these three sections together, that is, each of the sections emphasizes the fact that when Jesus Christ comes the saved will be separated from those who are lost. Whether it is the virgins, the parable of the talents, or the sheep and the goats of the Gentiles, this is the point that is being emphasized. The second coming is a day of reckoning for those who await His coming in the earth.

The Ten Virgins as an Illustration

In this familiar parable of the ten virgins, our Lord uses the custom of a bridegroom claiming his bride as an illustration of Christ coming for His own. The oriental wedding had three stages: (1) the parents of the bridegroom and the bride would agree on the marriage of their children and the dowry would be paid. This was the legal marriage; (2) sometime later, according to their customs, the bridegroom accompanied by his friends would proceed from his home to the home of the bride to claim her as his own. Traditionally, this procession often took place in the middle of the night. The bride, prepared for his coming, would join the procession which would then return to the home of the bridegroom. and (3) friends would join the procession in order to participate in the marriage feast which was held at the home of the bridegroom. Such a feast would often continue for days depending upon the wealth of those involved. A wedding, accordingly, had three stages: (1) the legal stage, arranged by the parents, (2) the procession, or the bridegroom claiming his bride, and (3) the marriage feast.

In the illustration which Christ uses, ten young virgins, unmarried friends of either the bride or the bridegroom, await the return of the procession from the home of the bride to the home of the bridegroom in order to join in the festivities. According to the custom, they brought with them olive oil lamps which were fitted to poles so that they could be held aloft to illuminate the procession. As Christ unfolds the illustration, five of the maidens are declared to be wise and five foolish. The wise had brought oil in their vessels with their lamps, a supply of oil for the lamps which in themselves did not hold much oil. The five foolish maidens took no oil with them. While they waited for the coming of the bridegroom, they all slept. At midnight, the cry was heard that the bridegroom cometh. This cry was probably made either by the leader of the procession or by the entire company, and constituted an invitation to others to join the procession.

When the maidens heard the procession coming, they quickly arose, trimmed their lamps, and lit them. It was only then that the foolish maidens realized that they had brought no oil. In verse 8 , literally translated, “The foolish said unto the wise maidens, Give us of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” Apparently their lamps had no oil at all, and when they lit the wicks they immediately burned out. The wise replied that they did not have sufficient oil to give them any of their own and instructed them rather to go and buy for themselves. The question of where they could purchase oil at that hour of the night is not answered but they may have awakened some shop owner living near or in his shop in order to purchase the oil. Actually, the text does not say they were successful in seeking oil. Their search, however, took time, and while they were attempting to secure oil the bridegroom came with the procession and entered the bridegroom’s home to participate in the marriage feast. To keep out intruders, the door was shut and locked. Sometime later, the five foolish maidens arrived and called as recorded in verse 11 , “Lord, Lord, open to us.” From within, however, came the word that they would not be admitted. Either there was resentment that they were joining the party late, or there was fear of robbers at that hour of the night. The bridegroom informed them, “Verily I say unto you, I know you not.” The application of the illustration is given in verse 13 , “Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.”


In this illustration of the coming of Christ, as also is true of the previous illustrations in Matthew 24, distinction must be made between interpretation and application. Following the strict rules of exegesis, the context indicates that the subject is the second coming of Christ to the earth not the rapture of the church. Although many expositors have attempted to make this whole discourse apply to the church,1 or at least from Matthew 24:45 make an application of the general truth of Christ’s coming to the rapture of the church, as seen in previous study the evidence is quite insufficient. There is no clear distinction between the illustrations before Matthew 24:45 and those which follow. Neither the church nor the rapture are in view. Inasmuch as the rapture (John 14:1-3) had not yet been revealed, it is questionable whether Christ would have tried to teach His disciples using an illustration of a truth that was not even known to them at this time. Interpretation, therefore, must relate this passage to the context, namely, the doctrine of the second coming of Christ to establish His earthly kingdom.

This is supported by the word “then,” which begins the passage in Matthew 25:1. The time, therefore, is the same time as found in the entire twenty-fourth chapter , namely the time of the second coming of Christ. A. C. Gaebelein argues somewhat at length that the “then” must refer to the church rather than tribulation saints because the previous verses in Matthew 24 also refer to the church.2 His argument, however, is faulty because the evidence that the closing portion of Matthew 24 refers to the present age is lacking. The word “church” does not occur in Matthew 24—25 . Lenski who refers the “then” to the period before 24:4 is completely wrong.3

There are some problems in applying the parable of the ten virgins to the tribulation saints as is always true in applying an illustration in its details. The number “ten” may denote completeness (cf. Matt 25:28, Luke 15:8; 19:13-17 ) as Lenski points out.4 The most significant fact in the entire illustration is that the bride is not in view. The ten virgins are friends who attend the wedding, not the bride herself. If the details of the illustration are to be pressed, it argues in favor of identifying the virgins as the tribulation saints rather than the church. If this illustration is to apply to an event that has not yet been revealed, it would require clear and unmistakable evidence which is lacking in this instance. Accordingly, the contextual argument as well as the nature of the illustration fits more appropriately the application of this parable to the doctrine which has been previously expounded concerning the second coming of Christ to the earth. This general approach also has some support in the textual addition in Matthew 25:1 in the Syriac and Vulgate versions where the close of verse 1 reads that they “went forth to meet the bridegroom and the bride.”5 Whether or not this is an acceptable addition, it seems to imply that the early church distinguished between the bride and the virgins.

In the interpretation of the illustration, care should be taken not to press the details beyond what the Scriptures themselves indicate, but the typical meaning of the illustration to some extent can be established by comparison to other Scriptures. As A. H. M’Neile expresses it, “Almost every detail lends itself to allegorical treatment, useful for the preacher.”6

The portrayal of the maidens as virgins (Gr. parthenos) probably means no more than that they are young, unmarried women, friends either of the bride or the bridegroom who would appropriately be included in the wedding feast. More significant, however, is the fact that the foolish virgins, in contrast to those who were wise, took no oil for their lamps. This is the most important fact of the entire illustration. The lack of oil is interpreted as being unprepared for the coming of the bridegroom. The symbolic meaning of oil is well established in Scripture as referring to the Holy Spirit, especially as one who sanctifies and sets apart individuals for God, and who reveals the truth of God to believers. The anointing of kings and priests in the Old Testament is a well established custom. Likewise, oil fed the lamps in the Holy place of the tabernacle and temple, providing illumination for the work of the priests and visual comprehension of the many typical aspects of the tabernacle and temple as they represent the glories of Christ. profession today also need to be prepared for the coming of the bridegroom (a far more significant expectation than that of the ten virgins). The preparedness involved is true in both instances. Just as the ten virgins will be tested by the question of a genuine work of the Spirit represented by the oil, so the professing church will be tested at the rapture. Only those baptized into Christ and regenerated by the Spirit of God will be eligible for inclusion in the heavenly union of Christ and the church.

In a modern world where churchianity has so often replaced reality in spiritual things, and church membership and mere outward conformity of religious exercises is substituted for a genuine work of the Spirit, the warning of Christ to the ten virgins may be understood as a warning to the church today. Individuals should search their hearts to be sure that they have a genuine work of the Spirit. In all dispensations, the test is ultimately whether the individual has eternal life of the Spirit of God. Apart from the presence of oil in the lamp bearing its testimony of spiritual illumination, there can be no security in Christ, no certainty of hope, no reward when Christ comes. These timeless truths transcend dispensational distinctions and make the application of this portion of Scripture to present spiritual need appropriate.

This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.

1 Cf. G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel according to Matthew (New York, 1929), pp. 280-95.

2 A. C. Gaebelein, Gospel of Matthew (New York, 1910), pp. 225-27.

3 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of Matthews Gospel (Minneapolis, 1943), p. 961.

4 Ibid., p. 963.

5 Cf. R. V. C. Tasker, The Gospel according to Matthew, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, 1961), p. 233.

6 Alan Hugh M’Neile, The Gospel according to Matthew (London, 1915), p. 259.

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