Close to heaven but now in hell
Parable of the wise and foolish virgins
I love the parables Jesus taught. First, I love good stories. Second, the parables make you dig for the message.
Sometimes parables obscure the truth being taught. Jesus taught that this was done intentionally (Matt. 13:10-17). So we must press in and look deeply into the text. A parable isn’t like a pop-up book: The message isn’t going to jump up and say, “Here I am!”
What is the parable of the wise and foolish virgins all about? What is its message?
It’s always best to set a teaching in its context. This parable is placed in the middle of Jesus’s teaching about His return in Matthew 24-25. It follows right after the closing teaching in Matthew 24 when He specifically discusses the actions of the good and faithful servant as opposed to the wicked slave – when the master returns unexpectedly.
The story itself is relatively straightforward. There is a group of 10 virgins – maidens who were friends of the bride. They are anticipating the arrival of the bridegroom as a prelude to the wedding and its accompanying festivities. However, the bridegroom was delayed, the virgins got drowsy, and fell asleep. In this party of young women, 5 are declared to be wise and 5 foolish. This characterization is based on one distinction: the wise virgins were prepared to wait because they brought extra oil for their lamps; the foolish did not.
When the announcement came that the bridegroom was finally coming, the 10 virgins arose. However, now the difference between the wise and foolish became obvious. It was dark out and they would need their lamps to join the procession and not stumble in the darkness. The foolish virgins realized their error, but pleading for extra oil from the wise virgins did not solve their predicament. The wise only had enough for themselves. The foolish bolted out and headed for the merchants that could sell them more oil for their lamps.
This mistake was tragic. They hurriedly purchased their oil and tried to catch up to the wedding party that had joined the bridegroom. It was too late. The entire entourage was inside the building that housed the festivities, and the celebrants were joyously participating. The latecomers pleaded to be allowed in, but the bridegroom thought they were only party crashers. After all, they did not come with the bride’s friends.
That’s the story. What conclusions can we draw from it? First, as I’ve mentioned, this parable follows Matthew 24:42-51, where Jesus explains the distinction between the faithful and wicked servant. That teaching is clearly focused on one critical message: “For this reason you also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will” (vs. 44).
Second, in the parable of the 10 virgins, the language that Jesus chose to use is not arbitrary, but intentional and familiar: (1) Jesus chose a bridegroom as the focal point – a symbol used elsewhere for Himself. (2) He chose a wedding and a wedding feast as the parable’s setting, concepts used elsewhere for the kingdom. (3) He chose the theme of readiness, a common subject often surrounded by exhortations to faithful conduct and warnings against sin.
Third, the parable is also eschatological, that is, it deals at least in part with the end times. It begins, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be comparable to ten virgins.” When is then? It is referring back to the teaching just completed, which is primarily (but not exclusively) focused on the end of the age – the coming of the Son of Man.
However, as with all the eschatological teachings of Christ, there is always an ethical application for Christians at all times throughout history – not just the “terminal generation.” Jesus is exhorting all of His servants to remain alert and faithful, for death often comes unexpectedly too.
So, is this a parable that warns followers of Christ that those who live foolishly will miss heaven? The problem in answering this question is that, in the Gospels, there is a group that falls into the murky realm between that inhabited by true disciples and the sphere inhabited by rank unbelievers.
Let me explain what I mean. When Jesus was on the earth, there were disciples – that is, literal “followers” who followed the Lord around in His ministry – who were not what we would consider true Christians.
Judas Iscariot, for example, was called a disciple; Peter said of him, “he was one of our number and shared in this ministry” (Acts 1:17). Yet Judas “turned aside to go to his own place” – hell. Some question this ultimate fate, but the biblical language used about Judas, while scant, is pretty clear: He betrayed the Lord, who called Judas a “devil” and the “son of perdition” (John 6:70-71; 17:12). Jesus declared woe to Judas and said it would have been better for him if he had never been born (Mark 14:21, 22).
As Peter states, Judas shared in the ministry of the apostolic band. This means that Judas went out with the 12 and demonstrated the power of the kingdom of God by preaching, healing, and exorcizing demons (Luke 9:1-2).
In the very next chapter, Jesus sends out 70 other disciples, and the results amazed these followers of Christ:
“The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.’ And He said to them, ‘I was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will injure you. Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven’” (Luke 10:17-20).
This is a tremendous encouragement to those who minister in the name of Jesus; the authority of that name and the power of the Holy Spirit will overcome all demonic obstacles and guard us.
However, it contains a frightening warning as well. The power of God that accompanies the proclamation of the gospel will do its work, but that is no guarantee that the Lord approves of the lives of those being used as His vessels. We are not to rejoice that demons are subject to us but rejoice that our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
The implication is that some – like Judas – can be so close to the kingdom that they are actually conduits for the saving power of the gospel, yet fail to enter the kingdom in the end.
This same tragedy is revealed elsewhere in these teachings in Matthew 24-25. How could a slave be in charge of the master’s servants – in his very household – but act wickedly while the master was away (Matthew 24:45-51)? How could the kingdom of heaven be compared to a master who gave servants assignments and money with which they are called to be faithful – but one of them was wicked and cast into hell (Matthew 25:14-30)?
One of the most frightening passages in all of Scripture is Matthew 7:21-23. Here Jesus says there will be many people who call Him, “Lord,” but who will wind up in hell. They will even be people who have done “Christian” things like prophesying and casting out demons in His name, yet they will be cast away from His presence.
There was always a crowd around Jesus – and there still is. But not everyone in that crowd, even those who give the appearance of being disciples, actually is one. In the parable of the sower, some responded immediately with great joy and seem destined to surpass everyone else. But their root withered away and they ended up dying spiritually (Matthew 13:20-21). In the ministry of Jesus, there were disciples – followers – who eventually turned away from Him and ceased following (John 6:66).
We must remember that the power of the kingdom is present with the church, but the church is not a building or a denomination. All sorts of people can be in a church service or on a church’s rolls. All kinds of people can belong to a denomination. But only those who are born again; who have placed their faith firmly in Jesus Christ; who have had their names written in the Lamb’s book of life; are in the kingdom of God.
So, in the parable of the 10 virgins, are all 10 to be considered Christians? Only in the broadest sense, when we really mean “churchgoers.” They are around Jesus. They hear preaching. They say they love God. They are near the kingdom – in fact, right within the margins of its power. They claim to believe in Jesus and say they are awaiting His return.
But the proof is in whether or not they have been wise or foolish. The wise are Christians; the foolish are not. The extra oil in the parable is probably not a symbol for the Holy Spirit – as some suggest – it is simply part of the story’s details. If you are wise, you are prepared to wait for the bridegroom if He delays.
Right after the terrifying warning of Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus draws a similar distinction between the wise and foolish that were among His listeners (vv. 24-27). If you are wise, you will hear His words and heed them; if you are foolish, you will hear His words but disregard them.
Thus, these parables and teachings are directed toward two groups of people who hear His words! These same two groups of people are at the heart of the parable of the 10 virgins. In fact, they are the same two groups of people that appear in all of Jesus’s parables and all of His teachings. There are different onstage plays, each with a different set and different costumes – but the same actors.
What could be more deliriously joyful than to be celebrants in the presence of Jesus Christ for all eternity? On the other hand, what misery could compare to the heartbreaking truth that we were so close to the kingdom, yet failed to enter it?
Do not be foolish, but wise.