According to the Bible, “the appointed time has grown very short” (1 Corinthians 7:29). Jesus calls us to watch for his return. Why? “For you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13). Christ’s return is imminent and his timeline makes us urgent. And given the urgency of the time, how then shall we live? It’s a question every generation of Christians has asked, and one John Piper raised and answered in his 2004 sermon on Jesus’s parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25. Here’s a clip of what he said.
Parables are like that. Sometimes the people of God are portrayed as the bride, and sometimes they are portrayed as those preparing for marriage. If you press the details of parables, everything goes haywire in the New Testament.
“The main point here is: A people of God are being instructed about how to get ready to meet the bridegroom.”
Parables are meant to communicate one main point. The main point here is: A people of God are being instructed about how to get ready to meet the bridegroom. The bride doesn’t even show up in this parable. But we may, then, collapse it into other teachings and say: Okay, we treat this as the bride, even though they are ten virgins leading the bridegroom into the bridal chamber. So, don’t stumble over these details. Go for the main, central thing.
Matthew 25:2–4, “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.” All ten of them had a job to do. They had lamps. The lamps were supposed to be ready, ignited when he comes. Light. “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Matthew 3:3, quoting Isaiah 40:3). He is coming. Light your lamps. Lead him in. This is their job. This is a job. These ten women have a job to do, and they are supposed to be ready to do it. That is the situation.
Oil in the lamps is part of the means by which they get their job done. If they don’t have oil for their lamps, they are neglecting the means appointed for them to do their work. They are supposed to shine with light.
Five of them are foolish. They are not taking seriously their calling to give light. They are neglecting the only means by which their lamps can do any good. What good is a lamp in that culture which has no oil to burn so it can make light? Their job was to provide light when he comes. If they go off, they are candles without wicks, as it were, light bulbs with no electricity, lamps with no sufficient oil, torches with no fire.
They liked their position. They could have left if they didn’t like it. They liked being lamp carriers. “I have a lamp. I have a lamp. I have a shiny lamp” — with no attention to its emptiness. Their foolishness was to think that mere religious form was sufficient. Their foolishness was to think that power for light can be borrowed in the last minute. Have you ever heard anybody talk about getting saved like that? “I will just wait. I will just wait.” That is really dangerous.
Prepared for a Delay
Matthew 25:5, “As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept.” Notice two things: Jesus tells us ahead of time there is going to be a delay between the comings. This has been a stumbling block for 2,000 years, right? “Oh, yeah, right. Jesus. King. Came, right. He brought the kingdom. Yeah. Where is he?”
“Jesus tells us ahead of time there is going to be a delay between the comings.”
Remember how Peter dealt with this in his second letter? “Scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation’” (2 Peter 3:3–4). And then he responds like this: “But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”
Two days have passed since Jesus left. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:8–9). Jesus told us in advance there would be a delay.
Matthew 25:5, “The bridegroom was delayed.”
Get Some Sleep
The second thing to notice is this: All ten slept, not just the foolish, which means that sleep in this parable is not negative. Don’t say, “Oh, the teaching of this parable is watch, because you don’t know the day or the hour. So, don’t sleep.” Well, that is wrong.
The wise virgins slept, which means sleep signifies normal, ordinary day-in, day-out life of doing what you got to do and sleeping when you get tired, getting up, doing what you got to do, sleeping when you get tired, getting up, doing what you got to do, going to bed, get the rest you need, get up, do what you got to do. This little word they all slept means what God expects of us in this period of time between the engagement and the marriage is: Do your duty and get the rest you need to do it.
I remember growing up and we had all kinds of second coming stuff going on around us in movies and books. I remember a movie when I was growing up. I forget the name of it. Thief in the Night or something, you know.
As the movie closed, there was this text that read, “Watch. For you know neither the day or the hour.” And a woman went over and pulled the curtain back. That is absolutely wrong. It is wrong because it puts the interpretation “watch” on “looking up.” This is why people have sold their goods, gone to the top of mountains, and waited, because they got some sign. “Watch” is taken to mean, “Be gazing up into the clouds.”
Do you know what “watch” means? Go to bed at 10:00 instead of 12:00. That is what it means, because if you don’t, you will be sluggish spiritually in the morning — and the devil will nail you at 10:00. “Watch” means, “Be alert, be vigilant. Do what you got to do in your ordinary life to stay attuned with the living God. And be in the word without falling asleep.”
How do you do your devotions without falling asleep? Turn the television off and get to bed. This is a text about living sober, ordinary, duty-performing lives so that when he comes, he will find you so doing.
“What do you want to be found doing when Jesus comes?”
What do you want to be found doing when he comes? Staring into the sky, saying, “Deliver me”? I want to be at a bedside, loving a sick person. I want to be in the city, working for the poor. I want to be in the pulpit, God willing, preaching a sermon. I don’t want to be staring into the sky, like that is some godly thing to do.
Oh, that we might be found doing the works of righteousness when he comes and sleeping after a nice, hard day of well done work. That would be a nice way to meet him.
Matthew 25:6, “But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’” Now, relate that to 1 Thessalonians 4:16, “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.”
Here he says: The cry goes out. “He is here. Go meet him. Let your lamps burn brightly with life, joy, faith, hope, love, expectancy, praise, wonder, marvel.” This is going to happen, folks. Jesus is going to come back someday.
Are you ready? Do you have oil in the form of your religion? Life, faith, hope, love, reality, or are you just carrying your formal little lamp around? “I go to church. I carry a Bible. I pray before meals. I try to keep the Ten Commandments.” Your little lamp. But inside, nothing of spiritual affections for God, love for the bridegroom, an intense expectancy that it is going to be better when he comes than the best sex you ever had or the best food you ever had or the best success you ever had. No life like that.