To the point of history to which it was given, the Olivet prophecy was by far the most significant pronunciation of Yahweh’s intentions, until it too was superseded by those of the Apocalypse. Seated on the Mount directly east of Jerusalem, with four of his most trusted disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John, Jesus painted a grim picture of the horrendous events that would lead up to the destruction of the city and the end of Judah’s commonwealth (Mark 13:3).

How the blood of the two sets of brothers must have chilled as the Lord talked of “… brother shall betray brother to death”, “earthquakes in divers places”, “wars and rumours of wars”, “famines and pestilences”, and “the abomination of desolation” that would overspread the holy city! He spoke of the urgent necessity of understanding the prophecy of Daniel, so relevant to their situation. They could not afford to have four opinions as to what that prophecy portended, and when they had correctly discerned the signs of the times they were to flee all that they had previously trusted in (Mark 13:14–15).

His prophecy did not end with the destruction of AD 70, but with penetrating foresight the Lord swept on to talk of those equally dramatic events that would lead to his advent to the earth. After the darkening of the sun, moon, and stars of Israel’s heaven, and when the Roman eagles had gorged themselves on the decaying carcase of the nation (Matt 24:28–29), he went on to tell of the day when they would see “the sign of the Son of man in heaven” (Matt 24:30), a day in which he would be installed as the “the sun of righteousness” in the earth. The signs that will precede his second advent will be no less spine-chilling than those of AD 70, so much so that many of those that witness them will suffer heart seizure! (Luke 21:26). Caught unawares by this great event the world will be plunged into grief and anxiety, in their failure to have heeded the warnings of history (Matt 24:30; cp Rev 1:7).

So that his disciples of all ages might not be taken by surprise, the Lord followed up his prophecy by setting forth four parables, all calculated to ensure that there would be a people ready and waiting to greet him with joy at his coming. Those parables, set out in Matthew 24:45 to 25:46, and their obvious lessons are:

The Nobleman The Need for Watchfulness

The Ten Virgins The Need for Preparedness

The Talents The Need to Use our Abilities

The Sheep and the Goats The Inevitable Judgment

The parable of the Ten Virgins is based upon an event in human society that speaks of longing expectation, eager preparation, and joyful participation: “Behold, the bridegroom cometh”.

There were ten virgins, a figure which Biblically speaks of the aggregate yet unspecified number (Gen 31:41; Lev 26:26; 1 Sam 1:8; Dan 1:20; Zech 8:23). It was also the number required by Jewish tradition to form a synagogue. Normally the ecclesia corporate would be symbolised by the bride herself (Rev 19: 7–8), but here the attendant virgins are chosen so as to illustrate the differing characteristics developed among those invited to participate in the wedding. All of those so called are classified here as “virgins” as they are expected to remain separate and pure from the seductive world (2 Cor 11:1–3). Of those virgins who will finally go into the marriage feast, it is said: “These are they which follow the Lamb” (Rev 14:4). It was the Lord’s immediate disciples who formed the nucleus of the bride community.

Note the sequence of thought in John’s gospel from chapters 1 to 3. As John the Baptist “stood” and watched Jesus as he “walked”, he said to Andrew and John: “Behold the Lamb of God… and they followed Jesus” (1:35–36). Andrew “first” found his brother Simon, inferring that John next went to tell James his brother, Jesus invited Philip to come, and he in turn hurried to tell Nathanael (1:41–45). With these six disciples, and Jesus making a party of seven, they arrived at the wedding in Cana, just seven days from the official declaration by John the Baptist concerning his ministry (count the days; 1:19,29,35,43; 2:1). When challenged by his own disciples as to why Jesus’ disciples were now baptising instead of him, his answer was: “He that hath the bride is the bridegroom” (3: 29).

All the virgins “took their lamps” and the Greek text indicates “their own lamps” (Diaglott footnote), emphasising that light bearing is an individual responsibility. These lamps were fixed to long wooden poles and held aloft, to accompany the bridegroom as he came to take the bride from her parents’ house to his own abode (Psa 45:13–14). They went forth “to meet the bridegroom” which could not mean to meet him on the road at that time, as they would hardly fall asleep on the roadside, but rather that they would congregate together to await the expected call.

Now five were “wise” , where the Greek word phronimos indicates “thoughtful”, “discreet”, that is, the practical application of wisdom. The other five were “foolish” and here the Greek word is moros (English “moron”) which means “dull”, “stupid”. Scripture is clear that the light-giving oil is a symbol of the Word of God that shines as a light in a dark place, showing the way to the Kingdom of God (Psa 119:105). It gave the only light in the Holy Place, per medium of the seven-branched Lampstand (Lev 24:1–4), which in turn symbolises the Ecclesias as light-bearers to the world (Rev 1:20). It is obvious that one class had made use of the light whilst the other ignored it.

Of the foolish it is said that they “took no oil in their lamps” . However this is a relative term, for they did have some oil in their lamps, but it was insufficient and the lamps were going out (Matt 25:8 mrg). Each lamp was so made that it contained a small bowl at its base which provided an immediate supply, but was limited by the size of the reservoir. It was the custom to carry extra oil in separate vessels to augment the supply when necessary, and it was foolish indeed to venture forth without the extra supply. These foolish virgins are indicative of those who, having accepted the light of the Truth as set out in the fundamentals of the faith, fail to add to their faith from the deep reservoir of God’s Word, and whose supply of character building spirit-oil fails at the last (2 Pet 1:5–9).

“But the wise took oil in their vessels” (RSV“flasks of oil”). They had plenty in reserve, like the priests who ministered in the Tabernacle, having daily trimmed their lamps from the Spirit Word, so that their light would “so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matt 5:16). From this reference it should be noted that light only emanates from the lamp when the oil is lit, and that the consumption of the oil gives light in the form of a character development. It is a question of the oil of the Word being processed in life.

Now “they all slumbered and slept”. The seeming delay of the return of the bridegroom affected both wise and foolish alike; it was much longer than they all anticipated . Sleep overcame them by degrees, as the Greek word for slumbered signifies “to nod off”! There can be no “delay” in the divine timetable, but to us it can appear to be so, and this in turn can lead to disappointment and frustration, which if we do not correct can eventually lead to giving up in despair, even in disbelief!

In this regard the words of the wise man are so applicable: “Hope deferred maketh the heart sick: but when the desire cometh, it is a tree of life” (Prov 13: 12). As the true bride our desire for his coming should never wane, as the Apostle Paul also exhorts us to spiritual watchfulness (1 Thess 5: 6).

“At midnight there was a cry made.” It is the darkest hour, the hour he would be least expected to come, even like the hour that the thief would choose for his under-cover operation (Matt 24:42–44). When that hour arrives it will be announced by a “cry”; it will be a startling event (Rev 14:7,18 —same Greek word; 1 Thess 4:16). Everyone will be shocked out of their lethargy, and the response to the call, “Go ye out to meet him”, will engender sentiments of despair or joy in proportion to the intake of the oil of the Word. Snapped awake by the strident call the wise have nothing to fear; their extra reservoirs of oil, properly processed in “their own lamps” will have illuminated the inner man, and diffused itself abroad in the radiant characters so formed.

They “trimmed their lamps”. The Greek word here used for “trimmed” is kosmeo (hence English ‘cosmetic’) which means “to put in order”. True virgins have no need of the ‘cosmetics’ of this world to enhance their beauty before the bridegroom for he will not be impressed by such artificiality, but they do need the ‘cosmetic’ of the spirit. This same Greek word here doing duty for “trimmed” is also rendered “adorn” in the following contexts: “That they may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things” (Titus 2:10); “Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning… even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit” (1 Pet 3:3–4), and finally used of the bride herself: “as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev 21:2).

Slower to arouse will be the foolish virgins. Their lack of oil will result in a lack of awareness, and when it does dawn upon them that the bridegroom has actually arrived panic will seize them, and their foolishness will be strikingly apparent in that they will imagine that the wise can make up for their deficiency at the last second! “Give us of your oil” they cry, yet how foolish to think that an academic knowledge of the Word can be quickly transmitted, but foolish in the extreme to think that developed character can ever be transmitted from one to the other! Too late “… for the time is at hand. He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still. And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be” (Rev 22:10–12).

In response the wise virgins do not refuse to help as the words “not so” of verse nine are in italics, indicating that they are not part of the original text. It is not a question of refusal to help, but a statement of the impossibility of the situation: “None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him” (Psa 49: 7). Whilst we all have a collective responsibility now (Gal 6:2), each will stand in that day “having their own lamps”, to individually give account of how we have discharged our collective responsibility in the day of opportunity (Rom 14: 10–12). However we may understand the advice given by the wise to the foolish “Go, buy for yourselves”, it does indicate that spiritual values can be bought, but not for money (Isa 55:1–3), and yet still “bought” , that is, at a cost to oneself. Now is the time to buy up our opportunities, for then it will be far too late. The cost is not cheap, it is even our time, given in devoted service to our heavenly bridegroom (Eph. 5:16).

So in the parable the bridegroom came, “and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage”. It is said of the Lamb’s wife that she “hath made herself ready” and because of this readiness “to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen”, which symbolism is explained as being “the righteousness of saints” (Rev 19:7–8). Now it said of all men without exception that “there is none righteous, no, not one” (Rom 3: 10). None are righteous in their own right, but the true bride is granted to be so because of her submission to her bridegroom’s attention in making her so! (Eph 5: 25–27).

With great joy “they that were ready went with him into the marriage-feast” (RSV, Roth), not just as invited guests, but as participants in the wedding itself (Rev 19:9). Forthwith the door was locked, and what a sorry sight to witness the hammering of the foolish virgins on the barred entrance, and that in the darkness of their own diminished comprehension of why it was so!

It is of the greatest significance that the parable should conclude with the foolish appealing to the bridegroom, “Lord, Lord, open to us”, whilst from within the voice of the bridegroom replies: “I know you not”. This is the precise language at the end of the Lord’s discourse on the mount, where having set forth the illuminating virtues of the oil of the Word, his counsel was: “Let your light so shine before men” (Matt 5:16; cp 7:21–23). So, as at the beginning of his ministry the oil was abundantly supplied in the advice given and the example set, now in the parable the time has come to test how much of it has been stored!

His denunciation, “I know you not”, does not mean that he is ignorant of us, but that he will not take cognisance of the rejected in that day. By our study of the word we may come to know about God without necessarily coming to know God, and whilst it is true that without study of His Word we cannot really know God, it is far more important that in the end He knows us! (1 Cor 8:1–3; Gal 4:9). Recognition will only be when he finds what he is looking for, that is, a manifestation of himself in his wife-to-be, and then “we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3: 2).

We are, by our submission to him, engaged to the Son of God; we love him dearly, we miss him during his long absence, we yearn for his return, and live only by the anticipation of the joy of the spiritual bonding in immortality. “Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh” (Matt 25:13).