"Those Who Were Ready"
(Delivered Sunday, December 7, 2008 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
Have you ever considered the way the Lord Jesus often taught spiritual truth through the metaphor of a wedding feast?
In Matthew 22, for example, He said, "The kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who arranged a marriage for his son . . ." (Matthew 22:2); and He then went on to teach His disciples, through the parable of the wedding feast, how important it is to respond to the call to come and be a part of His kingdom. Or in Luke 14, He taught that, "When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place . . ." (Luke 14:8); and He then taught how, in His kingdom, those who humble themselves will be exalted, and that those who exalt themselves will be humbled. In Matthew 9, when the disciples of John the Baptist asked why Jesus and His followers didn't fast like they did, Jesus answered, "Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” (Matthew 9:15). And of course, the very first miracle our Lord publicly performed was in John 2—in which He demonstrated His divine power by turning water into wine during a wedding feast (John 2:1-11).
As you read the Bible, you get the impression that our Lord thought highly of weddings. He often used them as an 'object-lesson' through which He could convey some truth about His kingdom that He wanted His people to learn. Perhaps this is because in almost any culture in which His word would be preached, weddings would be among the most common—and yet, at the same time, the happiest and most memorable—of all events in people's lives.
This morning, we come to another passage in which our Lord conveys a spiritual lesson through the image of the wedding feast. And in this case, it is among the most important lessons that we could ever be taught. It's a lesson that is so important, in fact, that our Lord repeats it several times to His disciples.
In the beginning of the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus speaks concerning His sudden and unexpected return to this earth; and He says these words:
At the end of this parable, Jesus, once again, stresses the important lesson to be learned:
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We have been studying together from the 24th and 25th chapters of the Gospel of Matthew; where our Lord taught His disciples about His second coming. It's a section of Matthew often called “The Olivet Discourse”; and as we've studied it, I hope you can see that our Lord doesn't answer all the questions the disciples might have had about the end-times.
They wanted to know when the destruction of Jerusalem would occur; and what would be the sign of His coming, and the end of the age (24:3). But if they wanted to know specifically what day it would all occur, He tells them that even He Himself does not know. He tells them that the exact time and date is something held exclusively in the knowledge of His Father (Matthew 24:37; see also Mark 13:32). But He does stress the all-important thing that we do need to know. He told the disciples, "Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming" (24:42); and warned them that they must "be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect" (24:44).
And this morning's parable is intended to fix that repeated exhortation into our hearts in a memorable and practical way. It's intended to warn us against the danger of thinking that, because His return seems to have been delayed by many centuries, we can afford to grow cold in our zeal for Him. It's intended to inspire us to live in a constant state of spiritual attentiveness and alertness—knowing that His return may occur at any time. And it's intended to teach us that those who will enter into the full blessings of Jesus unexpected return will prove to be those who had lived in a state of spiritual readiness and preparation for it.
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Now; Jesus calls forth an image in this parable that would have been familiar to the people of that day—that is, the image of ten young maidens (or "virgins") who were to play a very significant part in a wedding ceremony. And the first thing we see in it is . . .
1. THE TASK OF THE TEN (v. 1).
"Then," Jesus tells us, "the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom . . ."
Weddings in those days—just as weddings in our own day—had a traditional pattern that was followed. During a period of betrothal, the bride would prepare herself to become the wife of the groom, and the groom would prepare a home in which to receive his bride. After the period of betrothal was over, and the evening of the wedding ceremony had finally arrived, the groom would to go out at night to the home of the bride, receive her from her father and mother, ceremonially bring her into the home that he had prepared for her, and welcome her as his wife. This was a tradition that Jesus probably had in mind when He told His disciples during His last meal with them,
The festivities of the wedding day would begin in with the groom arriving at the home of the bride, during which a nuptial ceremony would occur. And the festivities would culminate in a wedding feast in the home of the groom—along with his new bride—later that evening. And the journey from the bride's family to the home that the groom had prepared for her would involve "the wedding procession". It was a very public event; and the whole community would witness it with great joy.
And that's where these ten young women came in. They played a very important part of the wedding procession. Because the procession would occur in the evening, they were to stand at a certain point along the pathway and be ready for the coming of the bridegroom from the home of the bride. They were given long poles, with a brazen bowl at the top that contain cloths soaked with oil for burning. And they were to wait and listen for the the call, "Behold the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!" And then, they were to join the procession and light the way for the groom, his new bride, and all the family and friends, as they made their way to the wedding feast.
I can't help having a picture in my mind of these young girls waiting for the groom's arrival. They would have been chatting away among themselves, fixing each other's hair and garments, and giggling with excitement at the important and privileged role they were getting to play in the procession to the feast. We could be pretty sure that they were also daydreaming about what their own wedding feasts would be like—and who it might be that would one day take them by the hand in their own wedding processions. And the thing I want to stress is their single task. It was to watch and be ready for the call that announced the coming of the bridegroom—whenever that call may come.
And that's our assignment too, dear brothers and sisters in Christ—to watch and be ready. Few of us give much thought at all to preparing for the Lord Jesus' glorious return. We're too often occupied with other things that we think are more important. But He says that our whole lives are to be to lived in a constant state of readiness—watching and waiting. As He has said elsewhere in Scripture;
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Now; we're told that there were ten young women waiting for the groom to come. But they were not all exactly alike. Jesus tells us, next, of . . .
2. THE DIVISION IN THEIR CHARACTER (v 2-5).
These ten young women were presented to be the same in almost every respect in this parable. They were all equally called to an important task in the wedding procession. They each had lamps. They all stood waiting for the same bridegroom. They all experienced the delay of the bridegroom's coming. They each began to grow drowsy, and to fall asleep. They all heard the call at the same time. They all arose together. And they all trimmed their lamps as the bridegroom approached.
But Jesus tells us, "Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish" (v. 2). And what it was that distinguished the wise from the foolish was only one thing—the preparation necessary to be ready in the case of delay. "Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them" (v. 3). In other words, the foolish virgins had accepted the call to bear lamps in the wedding procession, but they didn't make the necessary, individual, personal preparation to keep their lamps burning in the event that the time of waiting would be longer than expected.
The wise virgins, however, "took oil in their vessels with their lamps." They thought ahead. They made sure that, if the bridegroom was delayed, he would nevertheless find them faithful and ready—with their lamps still bright and burning—no matter how long they may have had to wait for him to come.
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Now; I believe the Lord means for us see the five wise virgins' vessel of oil as an illustration of the sort of spiritual readiness for His return that is to constantly characterize our lives.
Ask yourself: If you knew, with absolute certainty, that the Lord Jesus Christ would come back to this earth tomorrow, how would you live your life differently today? Aren't there some habits you would bring to an abrupt end? Aren't there some long-neglected duties that you would immediately take care of? Aren't there some places you would stop going to?—some movies that you would not see?—some books you would not read?—some sins you would stop indulging in? Wouldn't the certain expectation of His return the next day affect the way you talked to other people today? Wouldn't it affect the way you read your Bible, and prayed, and cared for your own relationship with Christ? Wouldn't your zeal for Him intensify? Wouldn't you make sure the flame of your love for Him was burning brightly?
Now, if you know that it's true that you would live differently if Jesus were truly coming tomorrow, then isn't the reason you have not made these necessary changes in your life today attributable to the fact that you really don't expect Jesus to come back tomorrow? And if such an anticipation of Jesus' soon return does not transform your life today, which division of the ten virgins might that place you in?—among the wise, or among the foolish?
Please understand, brothers and sisters; an attitude of readiness doesn't mean that we increase our activities for Him and engage in a lot of busy-work. He has already warned us in Scripture that some people would think so. He warns that some would stand before Him on the day of judgment and say, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?” He says that He will then declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practices lawlessness” (Matthew 7:22-23).
If we knew that the Lord was coming tomorrow, the proper preparation would not be to increase the number of our religious activities, but would rather be to grow in depth in our personal relationship of love with Him—to make sure that we truly know Him and that He knows us.
Ultimately, those who will be found 'ready' by Him at His return are those who have made spiritual preparation by entering into a personal relationship with Him by faith; and who are daily growing, in that relationship, to know Him and to love Him better. And those who genuinely know and love Him—You can be sure of it!—will also be found by Him faithfully serving Him and obeying Him at His return.
So; with all your preparation, make yourself ready for His return by growing to know Him and love Him better!
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Now; back to the wedding. If you've been to enough weddings, you know that it doesn't really matter what time it says on the invitation that the ceremony will start. Nothing begins until the bride has been fully prepared to be presented to the groom! Such things are just too important to be fixed into an absolute time schedule. So, it may be that the nuptial ceremonies at the bride's home took longer than expected. And as Jesus tells us, while the bridegroom was delayed, the ten virgins all slumbered and slept.
The problem wasn't that they nodded off and fell asleep. Rather, the problem was that, while they waited and slept, the oil in their lamps continued to burn. And this leads us to . . .
3. THE DILEMMA OF THE UNPREPARED (vv. 6-9).
Jesus goes on to say; "And at midnight a cry was heard: ‘Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!'" (v. 6). The cry woke the girls out of their slumber. The bridegroom's coming was like we're told that the Lord's coming would be—sudden and unexpected; but sure and certain. And as Jesus tells us, "Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps" (v. 7).
But then, the lack of preparation caught-up with the foolish virgins. We're told that, even then, their lamps were going out. "And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out'" (v. 8).
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Whenever I read this, I can't help but thinking back to my days in school. Do you remember how, in every class, there were always those guys or gals who never seemed to come prepared? They didn't bring paper; and so they tap you on the shoulder and ask if they can have some of yours. Or they didn't bring a pencil; and so they ask you if they could borrow something to write on. Or they forgot to bring their book; and so they ask if they could look at yours with you. (Honesty demands that I admit that I was one of them myself—more than once!)
The problem is this: What if you are the one tapped on the shoulder; and you only have enough paper for yourself? Or what if you only brought one pencil that day? There are some situations in which it's okay to share; but there are others in which you simply can't. And so, the Lord tells us that when the foolish virgins asked the wise to share some of the oil they provided for themselves, 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'" (v. 8).
Now; it may seem cruel for the wise girls to have refused to share their oil with the foolish girls. But in reality, it was another example of their prudence! If the five wise girls had shared their individual supply of oil with the other five, they would have to cut their own provision in half. Then, everyone's lamps would only be burning for half as long; and then all the lamps would go out along the way to the wedding feast—leaving everyone in the dark. And then, the whole procession would become an embarrassment.
The five wise virgins really couldn't give any of their oil to the five foolish ones. And sadly, the failure of the foolish girls to make provision to keep their own flames burning left them wandering around in the dark to find someone that would sell them oil—after midnight!
And may I suggest to you that this has a couple of spiritual lesson to teach us with respect to our own, personal readiness for the Lord's return? For one thing, it teaches us that we cannot live in preparation for the Lord—and that we can't live with love and service for the Lord Jesus—on the basis of grace we borrow from someone else. Nor can we make such preparation for others and pass our passion and service for the Lord on to them. As the Bible says, "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad" (2 Corinthians 5:10).
And it also teaches us that when the Lord finally and unexpectedly comes, it will then be too late to make the sort of spiritual preparation that we should have made long before! To feed and protect the flame of our love and faithful service to Christ upon our lamps will be something that we should have done long before—during the time of waiting. But when He comes, it will then be past the time to do so.
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So the wise virgins demonstrated their wisdom in that they prepared in advance for the Lord's delay. But the foolish virgins demonstrated their foolishness in that they were caught by surprise, and scurried away to make provision that it was too late to make.
Note, then . . .
4. THE DIFFERENCES IN OUTCOME (vv. 10-12).
Consider first the outcome for the prudent girls. The Lord says, "And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding . . ." (v. 10a). The wise virgins led the procession to the groom's home; and entered in and enjoyed the rich blessings of the wedding feast. And I think that it's worth repeating what it specifically says in the text— that those went in "who were ready"! How important it is, then, to be among those who are ready at His coming!
But then, consider the words that follow; ". . . and the door was shut" (v. 10b). Once the procession went in, and the feast had begun, there was no further entry. And so, we read of the humiliation of the five foolish virgins: "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'" (vv. 11-12). They were not able to enjoy the honor of the procession. They were not welcomed to come in to the feast. In fact, because they had no lamps burning, the groom didn't even recognize them.
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Now; knowing that this as a description of what will happen to many on the day of the Lord's return, someone might dare to accuse the Lord of being unfair. "Why can't the Lord just let people into the kingdom? Why does He have to be so narrow and unforgiving toward those who were not prepared?"
But to say that is to miss the importance of what the Lord is telling you and me right now in this passage. He is warning us—well in advance—what will happen at His return, and what His expectations of us are. And in doing so to us today, He is being very merciful!
If we allow our love and passion for Him to cool so that we are no longer walking in fellowship with Him as we should—and then suffer humiliation and disappointment His coming, after He has warned us repeatedly—then we will have no one to blame but ourselves. None of us will have an excuse if we are caught by surprise by His return, and found with our lamps having gone out.
We need to be sure that we pay attention while we can, in this day of grace, to . . .
5. THE VITAL LESSON TO BE LEARNED (v. 13).
The King invites us to become partakers of His kingdom. He invites us to enter into the fullness of joy at His return. And He doesn't want any of us to lose the opportunity because we were caught unprepared. And so, after telling this story to us, He once again repeats that important command: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming" (v. 13).
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Have you placed your faith in Jesus Christ at some point in your life? Then praise God—you have heard and accepted the call to come to His wedding feast.
But be very sure that you faithfully build on that invitation. Be very sure that you so live for Him today that you do not leave your 'first love' (Revelation 2:4). Be very sure that you live in such an intimacy of relationship with Him that you get rid of the things in your life that He would not wish to find in you at His coming! Be very sure that you are found by Him faithfully doing the things, in love for Him, that He has commanded you to do.
As the apostle Peter tells us;
Our Lord lets us know in advance that, on the day of His sudden return, it will be those whom He finds ready that will go in joyfully with Him to the wedding feast.
"Watch therefore . . ."!
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