Have you ever run out of gas and found yourself stranded on the side of the road? Once I was rushing to a meeting when we ran out of gas. The irony was that we had just pulled out of a gas station where we had stopped to make a phone call. We drove a mile down the road when the car sputtered to a halt. It was frustrating, but I learned a valuable lesson.
This reminds me of a song from the 1970s titled “Running on Empty.” The song’s theme was that we get very busy and don’t know we may be close to empty in a lot of ways. Could you or I be “running on empty”?
On several occasions Jesus Christ told His disciples to “watch” for His coming because we wouldn’t know the day or the hour. Learning the fine art of “watching” that we might follow His instruction requires that we not run out of gas. We have to learn to watch the gauge.
How do we learn to wait and watch?
One of Christ’s parables gives us the key to learn how to “watch” and to be ready when He returns in glory. Known as the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, it’s found in Matthew 25.
The previous chapter, Matthew 24, is a very detailed prophecy Jesus gave about the world events leading to His second coming. This parable is a continuation of the prophecy, telling us what we must do in light of what He says about His return. So let’s look at this parable to understand how we can watch and wait with godly patience for the coming of the Lord.
The lesson from this parable is to prepare now while you still have time. Those who do not prepare are not allowed to enter the wedding.
“Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom” (Matthew 25:1). The disciples listening to this would know what Christ meant. The image comes right out of the marriage customs of the time. When the husband-to-be had finished preparing the place he and his bride would live, he would come for her to escort her to the wedding. Shouts of “the bridegroom is coming!” would echo through the village as he came for his bride. Excitement would build as people gathered for the wedding festivity and the procession moved through the streets.
“Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish. Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps” (Matthew 25:2-4). By tradition the bridegroom would come at night, which is why the virgins needed their lamps. A lamp in this ancient setting was a small hand-held clay lamp, which used olive oil as its fuel. Without oil it gave no light. Five of the virgins prepared ahead and had enough oil to light their path, while five were foolish in not having oil.
In the Bible, olive oil is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Like the oil, God’s Holy Spirit comes from a source apart from the individual. The Holy Spirit comes from God. It then resides in a person and is a power to produce good fruit of conduct and character. The Holy Spirit dwelling in a person is the key to being a Christian (Romans 8:9; 1 John 3:24).
In the parable the presence or absence of the Holy Spirit is the hinge on which the lesson hangs. Five of these ten virgins lack the Holy Spirit of God to lead them. Five do have the Spirit and are prepared to meet the bridegroom as he arrives.
Traditionally, friends of the bridegroom would precede the coming of the bridegroom, saying, “The bridegroom is coming!” This would be done at night under the idea that the groom was coming to steal the bride away. The bride would be with her bridesmaids waiting. This would be one of the signs of warning that the coming of the groom was near. So there was a high anticipation and expectation along with the uncertainty of exactly when he would arrive.
An unexpected delay
The parable continues, “But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept” (Matthew 25:5). All 10 virgins slept, even the wise who had the oil. The virgins represent the people of God’s Church, and here is a strong admonition for the Church to stay awake and alert spiritually.
The apostle Paul shed further light on what it means to fight against spiritual drowsiness: “For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, ‘Peace and safety!’ then sudden destruction comes upon them . . . But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief . . . Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober” (1 Thessalonians 5:2-6).
Reading this parable should remind us that we are all susceptible to neglecting our salvation. Each of us can be caught up with the cares of the world and begin to slip spiritually. We can lose sight of just how vigilant a Christian must be. We can all fall asleep and be caught unaware.
I’m reminded of this every time a significant world event occurs that might bear on Bible prophecy. People “wake up” and pay attention to the news and wonder, “What does this mean?” When the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred, my phone rang off the hook with calls from people who were startled and wondered if that attack might fit into the Bible’s prophetic framework. Churches were filled for the next few weeks. But after the event passed, life returned to normal. If we are not careful, we fall asleep.
Jesus then shows what happens when we fall asleep spiritually: “And at midnight a cry was heard: ‘Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!’ Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps” (Matthew 25:6-7). Each oil lamp had a wick that had to be trimmed to work effectively. But it would not burn without fuel. The five foolish had their lamps and trimmed the wicks, but they had no oil. This shows that we can have part of the picture but still be missing a key part.
“And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves’” (Matthew 25:8-9).
Oil in the ancient world was a valuable commodity. Each person had to ensure his or her supplies were adequate. You couldn’t rely on another for this resource. So it is with the Holy Spirit—the most valuable commodity and power one can have. You cannot rely on your friend, your spouse or anyone else to provide you with the Holy Spirit. It is between you and God.
Some are shut out
Character is crucial at critical moments. If you don’t have it you lose out. The courage and insight we need to make wise decisions must be cultivated and maintained so that what’s needed at the time of crisis is in your mind and heart beforehand. Being led by God’s Spirit is the key difference between success and failure.
The foolish virgins were told to go and buy the oil they had neglected to have with them. “And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut” (Matthew 25:10). The foolish were not ready for the bridegroom’s appearance. To leave and try to buy oil at that time was a critical mistake. They were caught unaware. The bridegroom came, and they were left behind.
The sound of a shutting door carries a somber note of finality. The bridegroom has come to marry his bride. The wedding is set. At any wedding ceremony there is a realization that all has been prepared and a new life begins. When Jesus Christ returns and takes the Church as His bride there will come a moment when all the work of preparation will culminate in the marriage of the ages.
The lesson from this parable is to prepare now while you still have time. Those who did not prepare are not allowed to enter the wedding. “Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open to us!’ But he answered and said, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you’” (Matthew 25:11-12).
Of all the words Christ could say to anyone, “I do not know you” may be the most tragic. Yet this parable and other scriptures show us a moment of justice waits. Our life’s work will be evaluated. God is patient and merciful, but He is also a God of judgment.
Christ’s concluding statement in this parable brings us back to what we have to do now: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming” (Matthew 25:13).
The return of Christ is an event we know will come but not when. We have to watch. We have to watch our lives, watch our world and let the nature of the times and events spur us on to overcoming and living godly lives every minute of every day.
Are you a wise and watching Christian?