Matthew 25: Locked Out — Part 1: The Wise and Foolish Virgins

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Then the Kingdom of heaven will be comparable to ten virgins, who took their lamps, and went out to meet the Bridegroom.  And 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 arose and trimmed their lamps.  And the foolish said to the prudent, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.”  But the prudent answered, saying, “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 with Him to the wedding feast; and the door was shut.

And later, the other virgins also came, saying, “Lord, Lord, open up for us!”  But He answered and said, “Truly, I say to you, I don’t know you.”  Be on the alert, then; for you do not know the day, nor the hour.” ~ Matt. 25:1-13

All of my life, because of the later context of parables in this chapter, I have heard it taught that the foolish and wise virgins, and the sheep and the goats parables, all describe the difference between true disciples of Jesus, whose actions reflect an unhypocritical life, versus religious people whose lives are superficial, legalistic, and/or hypocritical.  I was taught that it simply represents the Final Day of Judgment for all people – the saved versus the unsaved, those who accept Jesus as Lord, versus those who reject Him as Lord.  That interpretation certainly may have some merit, but is, I believe, incomplete at best.

So I wish to dig here a little bit deeper.  When we place this parable’s interpretation as merely some Last Days eschatological, final judgment application, it becomes easy to distance ourselves from its daily application to our own personal lives, and to blithely say, “Well, I asked Jesus into my heart, got saved, baptized, go to church, support missionaries, give to the Salvation Army at Christmas, and handed out tracts last week at the mall, so I’m OK.”

Some Pentecostal traditions even teach that this parable distinguishes between those who have been baptized in the Holy Spirit and those who are merely “saved” or “born again” as Evangelicals.  Again, although there may be some degree of merit to this argument, (as we are in spiritual danger if we ever reject anything Jesus commanded us to receive from Him) nevertheless, I find both of these interpretations somewhat shallow and limited.  They allow too many Christians to pat themselves on the shoulder, as they mark off their “I’m-spiritually-OK” checklists. Such an attitude is the hallmark of Phariseeism and legalism, rather than walking by the Spirit through faith by grace alone. (Eph. 2:8)

…Which brings us precisely to the real point of this parable:  Grace is the fuel of true faith, and the real power behind the Baptism in the Holy Spirit.  We have to recall that all the women in the parable were virgins – pure, undefiled, waiting eagerly for the same Bridegroom, unselfishly looking forward to celebrating His union with His Chosen Bride.  The Bride is the corporate unity of believers in Christ, whose love makes us one with each other (John 17:11), and with Christ in Holy Communion (Luke 22:14-20; Rev. 19:5-9; 21:1-2).  These foolish virgins are not those who reject covenant with God; these are not the pagans, the atheists, the agnostics.  These are those in covenant with God, awaiting His promises eagerly.

First, we must recognize that all prophecies in Scripture must be interpreted in layers; they have multiple levels of fulfillment, both in typology, in differing periods of history, and in ultimate fulfillment in the Last Day.  Although it is possible to come up with a completely heretical interpretation, nevertheless, most of the arguments of interpretation for Scripture stem from theologians thinking there is only one “right” interpretation or application – theirs.  So I am merely presenting one important, and I believe often overlooked, layer regarding the interpretation of this parable.

Virgins are those who have preserved themselves for a holy covenant fulfillment that is life-producing.  They are also, as attendants, those who purely celebrate the blessings of their friends, who are coming into the same type of covenant.  Their lamps are the Word of God. (Ps. 119:105) The trimmed wicks represent lives of faith that await the Promise of God to be revealed in its fulfillment.  The oil is the fuel of abundant grace that is powerful enough to enable the will to endure fiery testing, in order to reveal the Light, the Revelation, of God’s Word, shining in a dark world awaiting her Messiah.  Falling asleep while waiting represents the period of history, or of one’s life, in which no more light (prophetic revelation of the day for accomplishing spiritual work) is shining, and spiritual darkness (the encroachment of sin and evil in a given period of history) is at its darkest and most enduring.

Historically, this can be unpacked for the Jews of Jesus’ generation as the fact that all the Jews of Jesus’ day were eagerly awaiting their Messiah.  All had God’s Word, and all had faith that He was coming.  The Jews had been given glimpses of their Messiah, hidden in prophecy, for thousands of years; but there had been no fresh revelation of Him for 400 years (the period of the virgins’ falling asleep).  But only some were receptive to paying the price of deep repentance in time to recognize Messiah when He came.  This was via the baptism of repentance which John the Baptist preached was necessary to prepare for the Messiah, Who was just around the corner.  The Chosen Ones who spent their time criticizing John’s ministry (no grace to accept the fire of God’s fresh prophetic light in their own generation) missed seeing the very Promise for which they had waited, even though He was standing right in their midst, ministering powerfully for 3 ½ years.  A critical, Pharisaical spirit depends on the oil of yesteryear, which has run out, and it fails to gather a fresh supply for a new generation, when God is offering fresh grace.  The willingness to lay down one’s own life, one’s own self-righteousness, one’s pet traditions, and one’s own timetable of expectation is the only price necessary to purchase today’s grace for today’s Promise.

The ones who recognized and purchased from that “merchant of oil,” John, during the “day of their visitation” were equipped with grace to endure through the night, which provided them light in the darkness to recognize Jesus in His Virgin Birth, His holy Life, His powerful Ministry, His wise Teaching, His baffling Cross, His promised Resurrection, and His glorious Ascension, even though things got very “dark” under the oppression of Roman rule, and even darker still for Jesus’ disciples at the end of His Ministry in Gethsemane.

So, most of the Jews of Jesus’ day depended upon the grace of the Old Covenant, which was running out.  When John called them to repent in a whole new way, they didn’t realize their old supply would not last through the darkness of what was coming.  They thought they were “just fine,” and were not willing to pay a new price while there was time to do so.  So a generation later, when the Temple was destroyed, they were left “locked outside,” with no Old Covenant light of fresh revelation still shining under Roman persecution, while Jesus began to celebrate the New Covenant with those who had already replaced their old supply of grace with His new Oil to get them through the darkness of persecution.  The Jewish people, whom the Lord still dearly loves, have been “left out in the dark” (lacking understanding) for 2000 years of frequent terrible suffering and persecution (though that has never been God’s desire for them), not understanding why the Lord doesn’t recognize them and save them the way they thought salvation was supposed to look like.  In their self-imposed darkness, they still do not recognize their Messiah (Anointed One) as the Source of Fresh Oil that they lack.

The foolish virgins got locked out of the wedding hall, being told, “I’m sorry, but I really don’t know you.”  In the darkness of our self-imposed shortage of grace, when we reject a current opportunity to recognize Jesus in a fresh new celebration of the Holy Spirit’s promises, God really doesn’t know us because He can’t recognize us in the darkness of disobedience which we have chosen!  We cannot draw on someone else’s grace, nor upon an old, used-up supply of grace which was paid for to get us through a past season, because we must pay our own current price of willingness to lay down every attitude that keeps us in darkness.  Darkness is simply the lack of grace which keeps us from seeing Jesus in time to respond to what He is leading us to celebrate today.

Judas Iscariot failed, as a “foolish virgin,” to draw on God’s grace to endure through that dark night, failed to see his Messiah rise from the dead as promised, failed to be restored by grace, as Peter was in contrast.  Peter had the grace to endure through the night, even though the darkness of shame for his failure was impenetrably deep all around him, as he wept for denying his Lord.  For this reason, when Jesus rose from the dead – “The Bridegroom is here!” said Mary Magdalene  – Peter saw his Savior, even in the dark night of his shame, because he still had the oil of New Covenant grace to sustain him.  Jesus’ promise that “I have prayed for you” sustained Peter.

So what I am saying is that Christians – no different from the Jews of Jesus’ generation – have a tendency to reject any current, fresh revelation of grace, depending upon an old revelation, which is used up by the time we wake up.  Then we miss the day of our visitation.  (Lk. 19:44; I Pet. 2:12)  In other words, we cannot go back in time to merely recognize the validity of what God did in the ministry of St. Francis of Assisi, or in The Great Awakening, or in the Azusa Street Revival, or in the Charismatic Movement and get on board with that past movement now.  The door of opportunity on any historic move of God – wonderful as it was in its day – is closed.  We may, and should, honor and respect the fathers and mothers of past moves of God; but it is even more important to recognize and be willing to pay the price of humility, repentance, and dependence on God’s grace to embrace what He desires to do in each of our lives via whatever current move of the Holy Spirit that He is sending us.  Otherwise, we will pray for revival, but only criticize it when it comes, because it doesn’t look like we thought it should.  It doesn’t look “right” to us because we’re peering through the darkness to which we have grown accustomed, because our lamps of old, traditional oil from a bygone era have gone out!  By the time we see lots of good fruit in the new move, and we realize the good thing we have missed, those who have been remaining in grace to accept that move by faith from the start, have moved on to a still-fresher move of God without us.

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