For the last few months, I have been searching to find the meaning for the parable that Jesus teaches about the ten virgins. If you recall the parable, ten virgins are waiting for a bridegroom and they all fall asleep. A shout is heard and they prepare for his coming. All the virgins trim their lamps, but the five foolish virgins find that their lamps are going out because they do not have enough oil. Once sharing is ruled out because there might not be enough, the five foolish virgins are forced to go back to make a purchase. By the time they get back, the bridegroom has taken the five wise virgins into the wedding feast and the foolish are denied entrance. This is a tremendously ominous parable. What does it mean?
This afternoon I was talking with a good friend over lunch. We were discussing this parable and I was sharing an observation made by a Christian pastor that the oil in the parable of the ten virgins cannot be the Holy Spirit. The reasoning is that the Word of God would never liken the Holy Spirit to something that could be purchased in a worldly marketplace when Peter explicitly teaches us that the Holy Spirit cannot be purchased with gold. The conversation then turned to the question of what could a Christian possibly buy in the world that would get them into the wedding feast of the Lamb and without which they cannot enter? It cannot be the Holy Spirit, so what could the oil represent? At this point, Jesus recommendation to the last church in the book of Revelation came to mind:
I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. (Revelation 3:18)
How do you buy gold from Jesus? The answer is that you give into the work of the church in the world by serving and giving money. How do you buy white garments from Jesus? The answer is that you are transformed through the renewing of your mind by purifying yourself and repenting of your evil. How do you buy eye salve from Jesus? The answer is that you study God’s word so that you have the wisdom to see.
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:
All of these things must be learned from our time in this world and none of them can be done at the “last minute”. If you knew Jesus was coming back next week and wanted to write a large check to support Christian missions to buy from Jesus “gold refined in the fire”, it is too late. “Night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:4) and once the shout is heard it is too late to earn treasure in heaven. Likewise, if you wanted to purify yourself that you might have “white garments”, this takes years of learning to die to self and cannot be done on short notice. Finally, it takes a long time to learn the word of God in order to have the “eye salve that you may see”.
So here we have three things that Jesus counsels the last church mentioned in Revelation to buy. These things can only be “purchased” in this sinful world and if you don’t have them, it makes perfect sense that Jesus would say “I never knew you”. After all, if you never purchased gold by serving or participating in kingdom work financially, did you really know him? If you never learned self-control through repentance but instead continued in sin, did you really know him? If you never bothered to learn the Word of God, did you really know him?
Objection: Salvation is a Free Gift
For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. (Romans 10:13)
The biggest problem that Christians will have with this interpretation is that it seems to indicate that salvation is not a “free gift” but must be earned by works. But if we recognize that there is a difference between being saved from hell and being kept from the time of trial, however, then this problem goes away. There are several ways in which the Bible supports the idea that it is possible for Christians to not be kept from the time of trouble.
First of all, there are a number of Scriptural pictures of judgment where a distinction is made between two different types of believers. In the Book of Daniel, for example, Shadrak, Meshak and Abednego go through the fire while Daniel is absent. In the Genesis flood account, Enoch is taken to be with the Lord while Noah is kept through the deluge. These stories suggest that there are two types of believers. One type escapes judgment altogether and the other type is kept through the judgment.
Secondly, the letters to the churches in Revelation specifically mention that some churches will go through Great Tribulation and that others will be kept from the hour of temptation:
Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds. (Revelation 2:23)
Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth. (Revelation 3:11)
Finally, the rebuke that Jesus gives to the foolish virgins is not the same as the rebuke given to the hypocrites in the preceding parable:
“And shall cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 24:51)
But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not. (Matthew 25:12)
Objection: Those who have just been saved must go through the Tribulation
It seems to me that this parable is aimed at a very specific group of believers (see below) and that those who receive the gospel with enthusiasm in the months preceding the rapture will be accounted worthy to escape the Tribulation.
When I consider all of these facts, I am reminded of a story told to me by a Christian friend. He said that in the week after the 9/11 attacks against the United States, many Christians came to church for the first time in years asking, “Is this the end? Is Jesus about to return?” If this observation is correct, then it suggests that the five foolish virgins are Christians who are living worldly lives. They are waiting for the return of Jesus, but they are not actively living for him. Their attitude seems to be, “I will live life the way I want to until I see the signs of the return of Christ and at that time I will prepare myself.” In other words, they are waiting until the last minute to fill their lamps with the oil that can only be purchased through a life persistently dedicated to following Christ. Just as Jesus severely rebuked Peter for a bad attitude, “Get thee behind me Satan!”, these foolish virgins will be rebuked “I know you not”. At that time, they will repent but it will be too late and their fate will be to go through some of the hardest times in the history of mankind.
Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man. (Luke 21:36)