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How to live on 24 hours a day

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Matthew 25:1-13

Thesis: To live fully in the Kingdom of God,

we must be ready for the King to return today

In the Middle Ages, people had no concept of time as we experience and measure it. Mechanical clocks were not available to the vast majority of people. Most did not know what year it was, or even what century they lived in. If only we were so lucky.

Campbell’s Soup has discovered that people will not use microwave meals if they take longer than six minutes to prepare. McDonald’s reports that their typical customer spends seven minutes eating one of their meals.

We are busy people. No wonder: every day in America,

•the Smithsonian adds 2,500 items to its collections

•we purchase 45,000 new cars and trucks, and wreck 87,000

•20,000 people write a letter to the president

•dogs bite 11,000 citizens, including 20 mail carriers

•we eat 75 acres of pizza, 53 million hot dogs, 167 million eggs, 3 million gallons of ice cream, and 3,000 tons of candy. We then jog 17 million miles in an effort to burn it all off.

Time is our most precious commodity. Winston Churchill spoke for us all: “Curse ruthless time! Curse our mortality! How cruelly short is the allotted span for all we must cram into it! We are all worms.”

Our concluding study of Jesus’ parables will help us deal with time, the greatest pressure we face. The central truth of our Lord’s story is simple: to live fully in the Kingdom of God, we must be ready for the King to return today. As we will see, such a lifestyle is the best way to redeem the time we have, to achieve significance with each day and hour, to use time for eternity. If we live prepared for Jesus to return each day, we’ll live in the will and blessing of God. And one day, we’ll be right.

Meet the players in the drama

Jesus is seated at the Mount of Olives with his disciples. This is the last afternoon of his public ministry (Broadus 498). His disciples have asked him, “What will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?” (Matthew 24.3). Matthew records Jesus’ answers to that question with the narrative and stories of chapters 24-25. And so the parable of this week deals with the future and its impact on the present.

“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom” (Matthew 25.1). “At that time” points us to the previous parable, the story of the servants and their returning master (Matthew 24.45-51). That story ends with this warning: “The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (vs. 50-51).

Now Jesus finds another way to emphasize the urgency of preparing for the Kingdom to come. Here the kingdom “will be like” virgins with lamps. This is the future tense (unlike the parable of last week) because it deals with future events (cf. Hagner 728). The kingdom is not like the virgins themselves, but like their situation in Jesus’ story.

The virgins are ten in number. A. T. Robertson, the eminent Greek scholar, sees “no special point” in this fact (196). But most commentators disagree. Broadus quotes Lightfoot: the Jews “delighted mightily in the number ten” (499). The frequency of the number in Jewish tradition and literature is interesting: there are Ten Commandments, ten talents (Matthew 25.28), ten pieces of silver (Luke 15.8), ten servants, ten points, and ten cities (Luke 19.13-17), an instrument of ten strings (Psalm 33.2), at least ten families needed to establish a synagogue, and ten persons for a funeral procession (Lenski 963; cf. Josephus, War 6.9.3). At the very least, their number signifies a complete assembly. The problem some will face this night is not due to any lack of friends within their group.

They are virgins “who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom” (v. 1). The “lamps” here were not the tiny clay vessels mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 5.15, the so-called “Herodian” lamps. Rather, they were torches with a wooden staff and some sort of dish or container on top. In this container was placed a piece of rope or cloth dipped in oil (Bruce 299; Broadus 499). The same word, lampas, is found in John 18.2, “They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons”; and Revelation 8.10, “The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky.”

The text states that the torch-bearing attendants “went out to meet the bridegroom” (v. 1). And so the virgins are part of a wedding, one of the greatest festivities in an ancient Palestinian village. The bride, groom, and guests were excused from most religious responsibilities. Scholars forsook the study of the Torah to attend. This was a great and holy festival (Johnson 555).

The event in our parable represents the third stage of matrimony in ancient Israel. First the couple was engaged (usually when the bride was very young), then they were “betrothed” for a year (during which they were considered to be married legally but lived in separate homes). Finally came the “marriage,” when the couple was given to each other (cf. Rienecker 73).

Following the marriage ceremony itself came a feast which lasted seven days (cf. Judges 14.12; Genesis 29.27, “Finish this daughter’s bridal week . . .”); it was shortened to three days if she was a widow. At the end of this week, the bridegroom came for his bride, conducting her from her father’s home to his own. This final marriage procession always occurred in the evening. Friends accompanied the bridegroom, and others stayed with the bride until her groom came for her, then processed with her to her new home (Barnes 264).

These streets were utterly dark at night. Every person walking them was expected to carry a torch, and those in the marriage procession were especially required to do so. Their torches lit the way for the new couple, and joined in their celebration.

And so these ten virgins have gathered at the home of the bride, torches in hand, waiting to “meet the bridegroom” when he comes for his new wife. Who might he be?

In the Old Testament, the bridegroom clearly represents the Lord: “your Maker is your husband—the Lord Almighty is his name—the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth” (Isaiah 54.5); “As a young man marries a maiden, so will your sons marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62.5); “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the desert, through a land now sown” (Jeremiah 2.2).

But the Lord Jesus turned this metaphor to himself. When John the Baptist’s disciples asked Jesus why his own followers did not fast he replied, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast” (Matthew 9.15). And so Jesus means the bridegroom in the present story to represent himself (cf. France 350).

John the Baptist understood this connection: “The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete.” Then speaking of Jesus he said, “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3.29-30). Paul saw Christ as the divine bridegroom as well. Writing to the Corinthian believers: “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him” (2 Corinthians 11.2).

The bridegroom is Christ. Who is the unnamed bride in the story, attended by the ten virgins? Paul has already pointed us to the answer in likening the church to the bride of Christ, the “one husband.” John saw the “wedding” of Christ and his church: “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Revelation 21.2). Verse 10 describes her as “the bride, the wife of the Lamb.”

So the bridegroom is Christ; his bride is the church. Who, then, are these virgins? They do not represent the church, despite attempts over the centuries to make them so. As we will see, some are not admitted to the feast which represents eternity with God in heaven (vs. 10-12). But anyone who is the child of God is his forever (cf. John 3.16, 2 Corinthians 5.17).

The virgins must not be spiritualized. They are illustrations within Jesus’ story, placed there as a warning to us. But a warning of what?

Keep your torch lit

Five of the virgins in our story were “foolish” (from the Greek word moros, or “moron”) and five were “wise.” There was no third category in the story, as there is no third category in our lives regarding the parable’s main lesson.

What makes five foolish and five wise? Not their appearance. All ten have come to the same marriage; all are now in the same house, awaiting the same bridegroom and the processional which they will join. All are wearing clothing appropriate to the occasion. All have come with torches.

Here is the issue, the “hinge” of the parable: “The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps” (vs. 3-4). A torch soaked with oil would only burn for 15 minutes or so (France 351). So the wise attendants brought “jars,” flasks made of leather, metal or clay which contained oil for resoaking the cloth on the torches (Carson 513; Beare 482; Robertson 196). The foolish attendants did not. We’re not told why, because no reason could justify their failure.

“The bridegroom was a long time in coming” (v. 5a). This was not at all unusual in the historical context of the story. He might be preparing his home for his new wife, or he might be paying the bills for the marriage feast. And so the attendants “all became drowsy and fell asleep “(v. 5b). The Greek is picturesque: they “dropped off to sleep” and then “went on sleeping” (Robertson 196), illustrating the two stages of sleep (Bruce 300). (Robertson’s comment is unkind but true: “Many a preacher has seen this happen while he is preaching” [196].)

So the bridegroom, the Christ, has been delayed. Those awaiting his return are asleep. In the same way, followers of Jesus will “sleep” until his return: “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15.20; cf. 1 Thessalonians 4.14, Acts 7.59-60, 1 Thessalonians 5.6).

But finally the groom arrives: “At midnight the cry rang out, ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!'” (v. 6). This “cry” is sudden, loud, jarring (Robertson 196; Broadus 500)). The watchman has seen the bridegroom on his way, coming for his bride. Jesus has already warned his disciples that his return would be swift when it occurs (Matthew 24.27, 37-41). So the one who sees the bridegroom coming calls the attendants to “Come out to meet him!” The phrase suggested a party going out to meet someone or forming his escort (Keener, IVPNTC 357; cf. Robertson 197).

“Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps” (v. 7). They “trimmed” their lamps by tailoring the cloth, soaking it with fresh oil, and lighting it (Broadus 500; Robertson 197; Rienecker 73). Now the crisis comes: “The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out'” (v. 8). Their torches had enough oil on the cloth to light them, but not enough to sustain the flame.

This is inexcusable—bringing their lamps was the whole reason they came to the bride’s home. Their one purpose was to light the procession for the bridegroom and his new wife, to form the parade which would usher them to their new lives. Without burning torches they would not be distinguished from strangers who have no right to be admitted to the feast. And they would dishonor the bridegroom and his bride (Broadus 500).

So they ask for oil from the five who were wise enough to bring it. These five prove further their wisdom: “No, there may not be enough for both us and you” (v. 9a). This reply in Greek does not actually employ a direct negative, and could better be translated, “We are afraid that there is no possibility of there being enough for us both” (Robertson 197; cf. Plummer 345). And they are right. No attendant would bring more oil than she would need for the procession.

So the wise advise the foolish: “Go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves” (v. 9b). In a little village celebrating a wedding, everyone would be awake. Shops would be open. Oil would be available. And it would appear that the foolish attendants succeeded in buying what they needed, for they later appeared at the door of the bridegroom (v. 11; cf. Hagner 729; Johnson 557).

But it is too late: “while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut” (v. 10). The bridegroom arrived suddenly, as he will: “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet” (1 Corinthians 15.51-52). Jesus’ return will be swift: “as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24.27; cf. 37-41).

The attendants who were waiting with the bride and prepared for his coming joined his processional. Their lighted lamps led the way. The entourage went to the groom’s home for the wedding banquet. “And the door was shut”; the Greek order is emphatic, “shut was the door” (Lenski 969). The door to a Palestinian home was usually in the middle of one side of the house, leading by a passage under the second story to the inner court. All the other rooms opened to this court. And so when the outer door was shut, the entire home was cut off to the outside world (Broadus 500).

Jesus has the authority to close this door one day: “These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open” (Revelation 3.7, quoting Isaiah 22.22). Now the promise made earlier by Jesus is no longer open: “knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7.7). This is the opposite of Revelation 3.20, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” If we do not open the door to him, one day he must close it to us.

Finally the other attendants arrive: “Sir! Sir! Open the door for us!” (v. 11). But the groom must reply, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you” (v. 12). They have missed the most critical element of the Jewish wedding, the moment in which the bride was brought into the groom’s home under the wedding canopy (Keener, BBCNT 117). There can be no excuse for such an insult. Surely no part of the bride’s processional would commit such an outrage. By their actions they have disqualified themselves from the honored place which had been theirs. And so the groom does not know them. And they cannot enter his home.

Here is the moral of the story: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” Whenever we meet “therefore” in the Scriptures we must ask what it is “there for.” Here the connection is obvious: we must ever be ready for the Christ to return for his bride, the Church. We must be watching every moment of every day. “Keep watch” is a command, not a suggestion.

He may return this hour, or this moment. Jesus may return before you finish reading this commentary, or before you teach the lesson it supports this week. Repeatedly the word of God warns us that it is so: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24.36); “No man knows when his hour will come” (Ecclesiastes 9.12); “Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come” (Matthew 13.33; cf. Luke 12.35-40).

If Jesus visited our tiny planet once, he can visit it again. The last recorded words of our Lord say it is so, “Yes, I am coming soon!” (Revelation 22.20). And John can answer, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” Can you?

Serve the King now

Jesus’ compelling story makes crystal clear the fact that you and I must serve Jesus today. No one can predict the day or hour when the King will return to his Kingdom. And so no one can afford to wait a moment to prepare for his arrival.

I remember the furor caused by Edgar Whisenant’s bestseller, 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. Thousands gathered in Korean churches on October 28, 1992 to await the return of Christ as predicted by Lee Chang-rim, founder of the Mission for the Coming Days church. Many followers sold their homes, abandoned their families, and turned over their assets to his church. Harold Camping predicted that Christ would return between September 15 and 27, 1994. Lester Sumrall wrote in his book I Predict 2000 A.D. that Jesus would return in that year to reign from Jerusalem from 1,000 years. So far, every prediction made in the course of Christian history has been wrong.

I like the bumper sticker which says, “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” That’s good advice. Be ready now. Michael Green: “‘Too late’ is a terrible verdict. The job has been lost; it is too late now to say you will try harder. The divorce has come through; it is too late now to make amends. The examination starts today; it is too late now to prepare for it. And those terrible words are never more awesome than when applied to the parousia. Make sure you don’t miss the party! That is what Jesus means. Readiness is the key” (Green 261).

William Barclay is right: “There is no knell so laden with regret as the sound of the words too late” (321). He quotes Tennyson’s poem to make his point:

Late, late so late! and dark the night and chill!

Late, late so late! but we can enter still.

Too late, too late! ye cannot enter now.

No light had we; for that we do repent;

And learning this, the bridegroom will relent.

Too late, too late! ye cannot enter now.

No light: so late! and dark and chill the night!

O let us in, that we may find the light!

Too late, too late: ye cannot enter now.

Have we not heard the bridegroom is so sweet?

O let us in, tho’ late, to kiss his feet!

No, no, too late! ye cannot enter now (in Barclay 321).

A sundial was once inscribed with the cryptic message, “It is later than you think.” The sundial at Johns Hopkins University reads,

The only hour upon thy hands

Is the hour upon which the shadow stands.

Austrian composer Franz Schubert was working on his “Unfinished Symphony” when he died suddenly at the age of 31. Frank Grasso, conductor of the Tampa, Florida Synphonette Orchestra, suddenly died as he was directing the last number of a concert. It was Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony.” We’re all playing in that orchestra. Be ready for the concert to end today.

How? By serving the Lord Jesus now. This we must do for ourselves. No one else can make us ready for Jesus to return. No one else can serve him in our place. As the foolish virgins discovered they could not borrow oil, so we cannot borrow a relationship with God. Others cannot give it to us. They can urge us to obtain this “oil” ourselves, but they cannot give their to us (cf. Plummer 345; Barclay 320-1; Green 261).

Make certain that you have trusted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior and Lord, that you have confessed your sins to him and trusted him with your life and eternity. Then use this present moment, this present hour, to fulfill his will for your life. And you will have all the time you need to accomplish that will.

I like the poster which says, “There are always enough hours in the days we give to God.” Paul Tournier was right: “God has given each of us enough time to do what God wants us to do.” Oswald Chambers’s approach to the future was simple, and profound: ‘Trust God and do the next thing.”

This moment is all there is. Leonardo da Vinci observed, “In rivers, the water you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes: so it is with time present.” In the words of theologian Paul Tillich, “Now is the moment when eternity touches time.”

To redeem the time, to use this most precious commodity well, give every hour to Jesus. Make him your King as you serve in his Kingdom. And when he returns, the glorious riches of that Kingdom will be yours. Whatever obedience costs you today will be more than rewarded tomorrow.

C. S. Lewis was profoundly right: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.'” Which kind are you?