The words of our Lord Jesus in His earthly ministry were often full of challenge to His disciples concerning His second coming. In Matthew 25:1–13 is a parable which has to do with our own personal preparedness for that great event. We must beware of forcing analogy, especially in parables relating to our Lord’s coming, in order to make them support our own particular theories. There are many unimportant things in this parable which are only in the background; others stand out on the surface, and with one or two of these I want to deal briefly.
I. The Scene Of Failure
Here are ten virgins, each with lamps, each going forth to meet the bridegroom. Five are wise, five are foolish. Five were ready, five unprepared. Five had oil, five had none. All of them slept, and I do not find that any of them is blamed for sleeping. Their sleep did not affect the preparedness of the five nor alter the unpreparedness of the other five. The Lord knows that none of us can be at full stretch for twenty-four hours day and night, and that we need sleep!
Suddenly the bridegroom came, and all of a sudden all the virgins were alert; the foolish tried to bargain with the wise for their oil, but the wise needed all they had for themselves. While the five foolish vainly tried to purchase that which hitherto they had not esteemed of value, the five wise went with the bridegroom to the feast, and the door was shut; the unprepared found themselves excluded.
It is not difficult to understand the implications or the symbols of this parable. Obviously, the bridegroom is the Lord Himself. “Watch, therefore,” He said, “you know not the day nor the hour wherein the Son of Man cometh.” The lamp must inevitably be our Christian witness and profession. “Ye are the light of the world.” Oil in Scripture is always the symbol of the Holy Spirit.
The five wise virgins were ready because they had oil, they had light. The five foolish virgins were not ready; they had no light. “Be on your guard,” says the Master; “be vigilant, for you do not know when the Son of Man shall come.”
The suddenness of that triumphant event is underlined for us here, as it is everywhere in the New Testament. “Behold the bridegroom,” and they were on their feet, seeking to trim their lamps. “Behold the Bridegroom,” and in a flash He comes. The swoop of an eagle, the flash of lightning, the thief in the night—these are the phrases which Scripture uses to bring to our mind the dramatic suddenness with which Jesus our Lord shall come again.
II. The Signs Of Neglect
Look for a moment at those people who were unprepared for His coming. How like the rest they were in so many respects. They all went forth; they all had lamps; they all slept; they all arose when the Bridegroom came, and went out to meet Him. But at that point similarity ceases, and now two sharply divergent paths are taken: five were ready and five were not.
Now it is all contrast. “Our lamps,” said the five who were unprepared, “are gone out.” You will notice in the margin in your Authorized Version and incorporated in the text of the Revised Version, that the little phrase reads—“our lamps are going out,” and that would seem to be the more correct translation. They have awakened suddenly from their sleep; they have trimmed their lights and for a little while they burn, but then they begin to flicker and fade out into darkness.
I trust you will not allow any theological difficulties concerning the perseverance of the saints, or the eternal security of the believer, to dim the warning of this parable. Precious indeed are such truths, but the only evidence of a true believer is his continuance; we are either among those who draw back into perdition, or among those who go on unto salvation: one or the other. It was Bunyan who perceived that at the very gate of heaven there was a road which led to hell.
Some years ago I was conducting an open-air meeting in a certain town in the mid-day lunch break, and while speaking to a large crowd of workers, I was badly heckled by one particular man. I said to him that this was my meeting for the next ten minutes, and if he wanted to speak to me he could do so afterwards.
Leading a crowd of his assistants, my heckler at the end of the meeting charged in front of me. My few helpers disappeared, pushed away by the pressure of the crowd, and I found myself surrounded by an angry group of men, led by a man of forty-five or fifty years of age, weighing fifteen stone, (one stone: 14 lbs.) not drunk but smelling of drink, and livid with anger.
He said to me, “You are a dirty coward.” I asked what he meant, and he said, “You are only in this job for what you are getting out of it, and because you are afraid to die.”
“I guarantee you are getting more out of your job than I get out of mine,” I said, “and I’m certainly not afraid to die.”
“You’re no good;” he said. “You don’t know how to talk to these men.”
I said, “Suppose you were here, what would you say?”
In passing, I may say that my helpers had forgotten to switch off the microphone and all this conversation was going over to a deeply interested vast crowd of people, and I was sending an S.O.S. to heaven!
He looked at me straight in the face and said, “I would tell them they were a lot of sinners going to hell, and they could only be saved by the blood of Jesus.”
I asked, “Who told you that?”
“Oh,” he replied, “I have been in your game; there is nothing in it, it’s all a washout.”
“Listen,” I answered, “you called me a coward. You have been in this game, and you are not in it now; I am still in it—who is the coward, you or me?”
He lost his temper and lunged at me with both his fists. I was glad I was used to playing rugger, and I tackled him below his knees and we both went down. I remember hearing a sort of groan go through the crowd, and there was dead silence.
I said, “You are the man who needs to be saved by the blood of Jesus.” The meeting rapidly dispersed and he went away.
Evidence Of New Birth
Later I checked his history and I am sorry to have to tell you that man had been twenty-five years on the mission field in India. The story: a broken home, a faithless husband, another woman, an utter and complete breakdown, and now drink! I do not know whether that man had been born again or not, even human sympathy can take some people out to the mission field without a real experience of regeneration. If he had been born again, one day I shall meet him in heaven in spite of it all. But I would suggest to you that when a man goes utterly back and spends his time right away from God, that one would question the reality of the man’s conversion.
We are either among those who go on to salvation, or back to perdition. The only security of a believer is the man who has not merely believed something in his head twenty years ago and made a profession of conversion, but whose experience is the day by day, moment by moment, believing and living his life to the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. The only evidence of a new birth is the man who goes on with God.
Let not your thoughts and doctrines blind you to the solemn warning which our Lord brings out in this parable. Notice that He beings by telling us that ten virgins went forth, and ends by telling us that when the Bridegroom came all ten went to meet him.
There is a going forth at our conversion, and there is another going forth to meet the Lord at death, or if He comes before then, to meet Him in the air. There is a forsaking of the world; there is a loving of Christ, an abandonment of our ambition and our desire; there is my soul going hard after Him; there is the experience of the incoming of His Spirit; and there is the heart that goes out in answer to the love of Calvary; and there is a life that is yielded to His service. All that can happen at the moment of salvation; but there is another going forth, to meet Him one day.
When this body is laid to rest, I shall be absent from the body and present with the Lord; or if He comes again before I die, I shall meet Him, caught up in the air. The most important thing is what happens between those two events; what happens between the moment we meet Him in conversion and the moment when we go forth to meet Him face to face.
“Our lamps,” cried the five virgins, “are going out.” They had oil once, they shone once, they were filled; but now they have gone out by their own fault; the light had grown dim until it had ebbed out altogether. Fellow Christian, we may live in Christ, but life may ebb; we may trust the Lord, but trust may become unbelief; we may obey Him, but obedience may be broken by self-will; we may walk in the paths of righteousness, but we may turn aside. Life communicated to us by the Holy Ghost to all intents and purposes, certainly in relation to its effectiveness, will die unless the channel of communication be kept clear.
Those lamps burned until the Bridegroom came, but at His approach they shivered into darkness. There is a Christian profession which passes muster in most situations, which does well enough in most circumstances, but in the light of His appearing it will shrivel into darkness.
Lamps Going Out!
“Our lamps are going out!” It is a slow process; the flame does not die into darkness in a minute. There are stages: the flame changes colour, it begins to flicker, then it begins to shiver. Then only a smoldering red line appears across the top of the wick; there are little twinkling lights like stars, and one by one they go out, and in their place there is only smoke and an unsavory smell. Like the ebbing of a tide, like the going out of a long summer day, like the dripping of blood from a fatal wound, the process of extinction creeps and creeps on until it paralyzes us and we die. Our lamps are going out!
Can you face this in God’s presence? Is it true of you and me? Are we not so faithful in prayer as we used to be; are we not so keen for the salvation of souls as we were, not so separate from the world as once we were, not quite so straight in our conduct as in the early days of Christian profession, not quite so strict about moral conduct? Is that not a blight which is sweeping over the Church today?
What about the missionary who has gone out to the field for the first time and who has been shocked to the core by the conditions he has seen at his mission station? What about the missionaries who have been out for years, who are not filled with a great passion for souls now. Instead, they are content to maintain an institution, run a hospital or a school; the vision for souls has gone.
What about men in the ministry, who went into it with a great flaming desire to see people born again, but now that is gone? I remember speaking at a ministers’ meeting some years ago where there were between thirty and forty present. I discovered that 90 per cent had been converted in the Welsh revival, but now the vision had gone and the Church in that town was dead and the testimony cold.
I dare not blame them, I know my own heart only too well. The sheer pressure of circumstances, and forces arrayed against them, the powers of darkness, the deadness and the indifference of the people—all these things had caused the lamp to burn low until it was practically out.
Is that true of you today? You used to be at your Church prayer meeting every week; you never go now. You used to be burdened about a soul without Christ; now you do not mind. You will be amazed to find to what extent the light in your soul has gone out. You see the joy, the enthusiasm, all the zeal of a younger Christian, and you say to yourself, “He will get over it!” You have settled down in life, and the lamp is burning low.
You may be unconscious of this experience; that is the surest sign that you are in danger. May I remind you that there was no positive sin alleged against these five foolish virgins. The thing which makes shipwreck of the Christian life is not wrong conduct, but the sheer negelct of the means of grace.
Time and time again when people speak to me about spiritual things, the first question I ask is, “How long it is since you prayed, since you read your Bible, or attended the Lord’s Table?” And the answer is often, “Years.” The life that has been received has not been fed; the life of regenerating power welcomed at conversion has not been sustained and “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?”
III. The Secret Of Deliverance
It was no use these five virgins going to the other five; they could not help. Nobody can transfer life to another. It is no good asking a Christian to help you if your lamp is going out, if you are conscious that the testimony has burnt low in your mission station or your church. It is no good going to somebody else for his oil; he cannot give you his—he needs all he has got for himself. It was too late for the five virgins to do anything about it.
At any moment, any day, Jesus may come. I do not know when; the times are in His hands: it is for us to watch and be prepared. If He came today, would you be prepared, or is your lamp going out, is the witness burning dimly?
There is one sure answer to the dull testimony, and that is, “Go back to the place where you first got it.” I find in my Bible time after time that when men wandered away from God they were told to go back to the place where they first met Him. God said to Jacob, “Go back to Bethel, and stay there.”
If you want the oil of God’s Spirit to kindle into a flame; if you want the love of Christ to burn into your heart; the testimony to burn brightly—go back to Calvary, the place where you first received life. All that you need for maintenance of the spiritual glow is to be found in the cleansing of the blood, the deliverance of a risen Lord, and the incoming and abiding presence of His Holy Spirit.
If the oil is burning low, get back to the Cross, and ask Him to light the flame of sacred love on the mean altar of your heart.