‘Then shall the Kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. . . at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh….. Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.’
(Read through Matt. 25:1-13).
These thirteen verses make up one of the most solemn parables that our Lord Christ ever spoke. This parable stands as a beacon to the Church of Christ in all ages. It is a witness against carelessness and slothfulness, against apathy and indifference about religion.
The figures and emblems used in the parable call for some explanation. I will give my own view of their meaning. I believe the parable to be a prophecy all the way through. I believe the time spoken of in the parable, is the time when Christ shall return in person to this world, and a time yet to come. The very first word, the word ‘then,’ compared with the end of the twenty-fourth chapter, appears to me to settle that question. I believe the ten virgins carrying lamps represent the whole body of professing Christians — the visible Church of Christ. I believe the Bridegroom represents our Lord Jesus Christ himself. I take the wise virgins to be the true believers, the real disciples of Christ, the converted part of the visible Church. I take the foolish to be the mere nominal Christians, the unconverted, the whole company of those who have no vital godliness. I take the lamps, which all alike carried, to be that mere outward profession of Christianity. I take the oil, which some virgins had with their lamps, and others had not, to be the grace of the Holy Ghost — that ‘unction of the Holy One’ which is the mark of all true Christians.
Let us then learn, first of all, that the visible Church of Christ will always be a mixed body, till Christ comes again. I can gather no other meaning from the beginning of the parable we are now considering. I there see wise and foolish virgins mingled together in one company, and I see this state of things going on till the very moment the Bridegroom appears. I frankly say that I can find no standing ground for the common opinion that the visible Church will gradually advance to a state of perfection — that it will become better and better. I fully admit that the Gospel appears sometimes to make rapid progress in some countries; but that it ever does more than call out an elect people, I utterly deny. It never did more in the days of the Apostles. It never has done more in any country, from the time of the Apostle down to the present day. There never yet was a parish or congregation in any part of the world — however favoured in the ministry it enjoyed — there never was one, I believe, in which all the people were converted. I believe that now is the time of election, not of universal conversion.
I fully admit that missions are doing a great work among the heathen. I do not under value these things, I would to God that all professing Christians would value them more. But as for any signs that all the ends of the earth shall turn to the Lord, under the present order of things, there are none. God’s work is going forward, as it always has done. The Gospel is being preached for a witness to every quarter of the globe. The elect are being brought to Christ one by one, and there is everything to encourage us to persevere. But more than this no missionary can report in any station in the world. I would not hesitate to preach the Gospel, and offer Christ’s salvation to every man and woman alive; but that there always will be a vast amount of unbelief and wickedness until the second coming, I am fully persuaded. A large proportion of tares will be found growing together with the wheat, at the time of harvest.
Reader, the visible Church of Christ is made up of these two classes. There always have been such. There always will he such until the end. Gracious and graceless, wise and foolish, make up the visible Church of Christ. You yourself are described and written down in this parable. You are either one of the wise virgins, or one of the foolish. You have either the oil of grace, or you have got none. You are either travelling towards heaven, or towards hell. Never for a moment forget this. The wise are they who have that wisdom which the Holy Ghost alone can give. They know their own sinfulness. They know Christ as their own precious Saviour. They look on life as a season of preparation for eternity, not as an end, but as a way; not as a harbour, but as a voyage; not as a home, but as a journey. The foolish are they who are without spiritual knowledge. They neither know God, nor Christ, nor sin, nor their own hearts, nor the world, nor heaven nor hell, nor the value of their souls as they ought. There is no folly like this. To expect wages after doing no work, or prosperity after taking no pains, or learning after neglecting books — this is rank folly. But to expect heaven without faith in Christ or the Kingdom of God without being born again, or the crown of glory without the cross and a holy walk, all this is greater folly still, and yet more common. Alas, for the folly of the world!
Learn secondly, from this parable, that the visible Church is always in danger of neglecting the doctrine of Christ’s second advent. I draw this truth from that solemn verse. ‘While the bride-groom tarried, they all slumbered and slept.’ I believe our Lord’s meaning was simply this, that during the interval between his first and second advent, the whole Church, both believers and unbelievers, would get into a dull and dim-sighted state of soul about the blessed doctrine of his own personal return to earth. And, reader I say deliberately, that so far as my own judgement goes, there never was a saying of our Lord’s more thoroughly verified by the event. I say that of all doctrines of the Gospel, the one about which Christians have become most unlike the first Christians, in their sense of its true value, is the doctrine of Christ’s second advent. I have long felt it is one of the greatest shortcomings of the Church of Christ that we ministers do not preach enough about this advent of Christ, and that private believers do not think enough about it. A few of us here and there receive the doctrine, but we none of us live on it, feed on it, act on it, work from it, take comfort in it, as much as God intended us to do. In short the Bridegroom tarries, and we all slumber and sleep.
It proves nothing against the doctrine of Christ’s second coming, that it has sometimes been fearfully abused. I should like to know what doctrine of the Gospel has not been abused. Salvation by grace has been made a pretext for licentiousness, election, an excuse for all manner of unclean living. But if men will draw wrong conclusions we are not therefore obliged to throw aside good principles. Separate the doctrine from the mistakes and blunders of many who hold it. Do not reject the foundation because of the wood, hay, and stubble which some have built upon it. Do not condemn it and cast it aside because of injudicious friends.
Learn, in the third place, that whenever Christ does come again, it will be a very sudden event. It will come on men suddenly. It will not have been talked over, prepared for, and looked forward to by everybody. It will awaken men’s minds like the cry of fire at midnight. It will startle men’s hearts like a trumpet blown at their bedside in their sleep. Like Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea, they will know nothing till the very waters are upon them. Like Dathan and Abiram, and their company, when the earth opened under them, the moment of their hearing the report of the visitation will be the same moment when they will see it with their eyes. Before they can recover their breath and know where they are, they shall find that the Lord is come. Everything which is written in Scripture on this point confirms the truth. ‘As a snare shall it come,’ says one place ‘As a thief in the night,’ says another, ‘As, the lightning,’ says a third, ‘In such an hour as ye think not,’ says a fourth, ‘When they shall say, Peace and safety,’ says a fifth. (Luke 21:35; 1 Thess. 5:21; Luke 17:24; Matt. 24:44; 1 Thess. 5:3). When the Lord came on the earth in Noah’s time, there was no appearance beforehand of anything so awful being near. The days and nights were following each other in regular succession. The grass, and trees, and crops were growing as usual. The business of the world was going on . . .The flood took the world by surprise — so also will the coming of the Son of Man. (Luke 17:26).
Ah, reader! When shall this thing be? Truly we may say, ‘Lord God, Thou knowest.’ A thousand years in his sight are as one day, and one day as a thousand years. But we do know that yet a little while he that shall come, will come, and will not tarry. Yet a little while, and the last sermon shall be preached, the last congregation shall break up. Yet a little while, and carelessness, and infidelity shall cease, perish and pass away. The believers among us will be with Christ, and the unbelievers in hell. The night is far spent, and the day is at hand. . . Now God delays the final glory, and allows things to go on as they do in this world. It is not that he is not able to prevent evil, it is not that he is slack in the fulfilling of his promises, but the Lord is taking out for himself a people by the preaching of the Gospel (Acts 15:14; 2 Peter 3:9). He is longsuffering to unconverted Christians. ‘The Lord is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.’ Once let the number of the elect be gathered out of the world — once let the last elect sinner be brought to repentance — and then the kingdom of Christ shall he set up, and the throne of grace shall be exchanged for the throne of glory.
Reader, the suddenness of the Lord’s second advent is a truth that should lead every professing Christian to great searching of heart. Learn what an immense change this event will make to the members of the visible Church, both good and bad. I draw this truth from the concluding portion of the parable, from the discovery of the foolish virgins that their lamps were gone out, from their anxious address to the wise, ‘Give us of your oil,’ from their vain knocking at the door when too late, from the happy admission of the wise who were found ready, in company with the bridegroom. It will be an immense change to the ungodly, to all who are found mere nominal Christians. All such persons, when Christ comes again, will see the value of real spiritual religion. They will do in effect what the parable describes under a figure — they will cry to the godly, ‘Give us of your oil.’
Who does not know, as things are now, spiritual religion never brings a man the world’s praise? It entails on a man the world’s disapprobation, the world’s persecution, the world’s mockery . . . Who has not heard of nicknames in plenty, bestowed on those who follow Christ — Puritans, Methodists, Calvinists, and many more? Who does not know the petty family persecutions which often go on in private society today? Let a young person go to every ball, and opera, and racecourse, and worldly party, and utterly neglect his soul, and no one interferes; no one says, ‘Spare thyself’ — no one says, ‘Take care: remember God, judgment, and eternity.’ But let him only begin to read his Bible, and be diligent in prayer, let him decline worldly amusements, and become particular in his employment of time, let him live like an immortal being let him do this, I say, and all his friends and relatives will probably be up in arms. ‘You are going too far. You are taking up extreme views.’ There will be an end of all this when Christ returns to the world. The light of that day will at length show everything in its true colours. The scales will fall from the poor worldling’s eyes. The value of the soul will flash on his astonished mind. The utter uselessness of a mere nominal Christianity will burst upon him like a thunder-storm. Just as Saul wanted Samuel when it was too late, and Belshazzar sent for Daniel when the kingdom was about to be taken from him, so will the ungodly turn to the very men they once mocked and despised, and cry to them, ‘Give us of your oil, for our lamps are gone out.’
Let me draw from the whole subject a solemn question for all into whose hands this address may fall. That question is simply this: Are you ready for the great change? Are you ready for the coming of Christ?
‘Ah!’ I can imagine some saying, ‘this is asking far too much. To be ready for Christ’s appearing! this is far too high a standard. This is extravagance. There would be no living in the world at this rate. This is a hard saying. Who can hear it?’ I cannot help it. I believe this is the standard of the Bible. I believe this is the standard Paul sets before us when he says the Thessalonians were ‘waiting for the Son of God from heaven,’ and the Corinthians ‘waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (1 Thess. 1:10; 1 Cor. 1:7). And surely this is the standard Peter sets before us, when he speaks of ‘looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God.’ (2 Pet. 3:12).
It is useless to tell me that, in asking this, I put before you too high a standard. It is vain to tell me that a man may be a very good man, and yet not be ready for the kingdom of Christ. I deny it altogether. I say that every justified and converted man is ready, and that if you are not ready you are not a justified man. I say that the standard I put before you is nothing more than the New Testament standard, and that the Apostles would have doubted the truth of your religion, if you were not looking and longing for the coming of the Lord. I say above all that the grand end of the Gospel is to prepare men to meet God. What has your Christianity done for you if it has not made you meet for the kingdom of Christ? Nothing! nothing at all! Oh, that you may think on this matter, and never rest till you are ready to meet Christ!
In the next place let me offer an invitation to all readers who do not feel ready for Christ’s return. That invitation shall be short and simple. I beseech you to know your danger and come to Christ without delay. I entreat you this day to ‘flee from the wrath to come,’ to the hope set before you in the Gospel. I pray you in God’s stead, to lay down your enmity and unbelief, and at once to be reconciled to God. (2 Cor. 5:20). Cast away everything that draws you back. Cry mightily to the Lord Jesus to reveal himself to your soul.
Last of all, let me draw from the subject an exhortation to all who know Christ indeed, and love his appearing. That exhortation is simply this, that you will strive more and more to be a ‘doing’ Christian. (James 1:22). Labour more and more to show forth the praises of him who hath called you. Improve every talent. Let your conformity to the mind of Christ be unquestionable and unmistakable. Never was there a greater mistake than to fancy that the doctrine of the personal return of Christ is calculated to paralyze Christian diligence. Surely there can be no greater spur to the servant’s activity than the expectation of his master’s speedy return. This is the way to attain a healthy state of soul. Alas, there are not a few of God’s saints who complain that they want spiritual comfort in their religion, while the fault is altogether in themselves. ‘Occupy, occupy,’ I would say to such persons. Lay yourselves out more heartily for the glory of God. . . Oh, brethren believers, it would be well indeed if we did but see clearly how much it is for our interest and happiness to occupy every farthing of our Lord’s money — to live very near to God.
I ask every reader of this address to bring the light of the day of Christ to bear upon his inner man. Set your years, and months, and weeks, and days, and hours in the full blaze of that day. Try all your employment of time by the test of Christ’s second coming. Live as if you thought Christ might come at any time. Lie down in bed at night ready, if need be, to be awakened by the midnight cry, ‘Behold the Bridegroom cometh.’ Do everything as if you did it for the last time. Say everything as if you said it for the last time. Read every chapter in the Bible as if you did not know whether you would be allowed to read it again. Pray every prayer as if you felt it might be your last opportunity. This is the way to be found ready. This is the way to turn Christ’s second appearing to good account.
Whether the last days of old England have really come, whether her political greatness is about to pass away, whether her Protestant Church is about to have her candlestick removed, whether in the coming crash of nations England is to perish like Amalek, or at length be saved, and escape ‘so as by fire’ — all these are points which I dare not attempt to settle; a very few years will decide them. But I am sure there never was a time when it was more imperatively needful to summon believers to ‘cease from man,’ to stand on their watch towers, and to build all their hopes on the second coming of the Lord.
This article was first published in the October 1956 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.