LIT TORCHES: READINESS FOR THE ADVENT.
THE virgin character is one of God's chosen symbols for the regenerate soul. "I espoused you," says Paul - you, all the Corinthian Christians - "to one husband, that I might present you as a pure virgin to Christ" (2 Cor. 11: 2). In the Ten Virgins - virgins in Christ's sight, not merely virgins before the world (Stier) - this truth is strongly reinforced by the figure of lit lamps.* "The spirit of man is the LAMP of the Lord" (Prov. 20: 27): oil is the unfailing figure of the Spirit of God: so all ten virgins are souls burning with the flame of spiritual life; lamps actually kindled; God's lights in the world; like John, "a burning and a shining lamp" (John 5: 35). "The Virgins," as Greswell says, "are all who agree in the common character of Christians, and in the common circumstance of being subjected to an economy of probation on Christian principles."
[*Outdoor lamps, or torches. "It was the custom to bring the bride in the night-time; there were about ten staffs; and upon the top of each was a brazen dish, containing rags, oil, and pitch" (Rabbi Solomo), which was fed with oil from another vessel.]
Moreover, all are bridesmaids, and so all are presumably clothed, as invited guests, with the wedding garment - the imputed righteousness of Christ*: the parable belongs to bridesmaids alone. All Ten - torches in hand - thought that the Advent was immediately at hand, and eagerly responded to its call. But it is the responsibility side of the Virgin character, as the number ten - Ten Commandments, Ten Plagues, Ten Servants, etc. - always indicates: virgins divided, not into "good" and "bad" ; much less into "saved" and "lost"; but into "wise" - prudent, farseeing, rightly regardful of their own interests - and "foolish" - imprudent, improvident, spiritually thriftless. So identical are they in basic character that the same reward is proposed and suggested to all - the inaugural Banquet of Messiah's coming Kingdom: "the reward of their faith and obedience which is proposed to any, is proposed to all, and if attainable by any is attainable by all" (Greswell).
[* Many Christians believe, on the basis of Rev. 19: 8, that the ‘righteousness’ of the ‘Bride’ is not that of Christ’s but one’s own righteousness after conversion. Hence there us a distinction made in the parable between the ‘bridesmaids’ and the ‘Bride’.]
So then we find that the supreme quality emphasized, - which severs the Virgins into two groups, and which makes the startling distinction of destiny, is READINESS. "The foolish, when they took their lamps, took no oil with them: but the wise took oil in their vessels" - the cans or flasks they carried with the torches, for replenishing the oil "with their lamps" (Matt. 25: 3). The wise and foolish virgins are identical in nine points, they differ only in one. All were virgins - regenerate; all ten lamps were lit - by the indwelling Spirit; all expected the Bridegroom - at the Second Advent; all go forth to meet Him - outside the camp; all fell asleep - in death; all hear the midnight cry - the Advent shout; all rise together - in resurrection*; all trim their lamps - anxious to appear shining before their Lord; and all appear, for separating judgment, before the Bridegroom. The solitary difference between them lies in the absence of a supply of additional oil: it is not a difference between those who have some oil and those who have no oil; but between those who have some and those who have more. "The supply of oil laid up in these vessels, being necessarily something distinct from the stock contained in the lamps, if that was to be called the ordinary supply, this must be called the extraordinary " (Greswell).** So far from the foolish being unlit lamps, unregenerate souls, it is the very forefront of their offence that their self-security rests on their being lit lamps - they are confident that the flame of regeneration, the indwelling of the Spirit, is amply sufficient preparation for the Advent; while they are ignorant, or sceptical, of the fact that "a common belonging to the Church looking for Christ's Parousia, and therefore a common waiting and hoping for the day of the Lord, does not exclude a perilous distinction of folly and wisdom among individual disciples as regards the manner in which one class and the other make ready for the Lord's coming" (Goebel). The lamp possessed by all, is an invitation to the Wedding Festival: the mistake the Foolish make is to regard it as a passport. The prudent virgin, on the contrary corresponding to the faithful servant who trades with the talents - makes ready, consciously and deliberately, by an experience of sanctity unknown to the foolish, and achieved altogether subsequently to the kindling of the torch. "This exhortation," says Calvin, "is to confirm believers in perseverance. Christ says that believers need to have incessant supplies of courage, to support the flame which is kindled in their hearts; otherwise their zeal will fail ere they have completed the journey."
[* There is no scriptural evidence that ‘all rise together in resurrection’.]
[**We have a curiously apt parallel in petrol and the motor; for additional spirit is reserved and carried in a spare can or separate compartment of the tank, to use when the machine, through exhaustion of the spirit in it, begins to die down.]
one great event befalls them all. "Now while the Bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered"
- fell sick, passed into coma - "and slept"
- died. That the sleep is innocent is
obvious, because it befalls the wise equally with the foolish, and is nowhere
rebuked; and thus nearly all the ancient interpreters expound it: had it been
spiritual sleep, the conferring on the wise virgins of supreme reward would
have been utterly impossible. It is thus
extraordinarily significant, and pregnant with warning, that two believers
manifestly such, with shining lamps* - can fall asleep exactly alike, otherwise
indistinguishable, both supposing themselves perfectly prepared for the Advent;
yet one is ready for the Lord, and one not - and nothing but the event will reveal which is which. The very delay is designed as the
discriminating test: as years and
decades pass we are proving ourselves
wise or foolish. For here (in this
context) is the whole
[* Whether we translate (with A.V.) "are gone out," or (with R.V.) "are going out," both equally imply that all are possessed of the Spirit, and all are ignited from Christ. "If you deny that the torches of the foolish had any oil, I deny it equally to the torches of the wise" (Govett).]
Now comes the crash of Advent, with its earthquake shock bursting all locks and betraying all secrets. "But at midnight" - midnight is the point of junction between two separate days, a watershed of severed epochs - "there is a cry" - apparently from the Lord's attendant angels "Behold the bridegroom! Come ye forth to meet him." The virgins had "come forth," before, from the world: now they "come forth," from the tomb. As all arise at once, all are believers: for "the rest of the dead lived not until the thousand years should be finished" (Rev. 20: 5): it is an axiom of Scripture that the wicked and the holy do not rise together. All the lamps had gone on burning through the night; all have saving grace that survives death: but now the foolish virgins discover their disastrous mistake. "Our lamps," they cry, "are going out"; not gone out, for (as Archbishop Trench points out) they ask, not for kindling, but for oil. It is the same word as is used (1 Thess. 5: 19) for the quenching of the Spirit. They had thought that they would shine before the Lord by regenerating grace alone: now, shocked into wisdom, they are wise - they are not called foolish after arising - too late: not an hour, not a minute, remains for readiness. HE IS HERE. In that day no man can protect us from the revelation of our own works; not because he will not, but because he cannot. "And they that were READY went in."
For now, though at last appearing with the oil - as we may reasonably suppose; for they would hardly repeat their mistake of appearing a second time without it: therefore now as fully equipped as the rest - they have lost the Banquet. "Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, "Lord, Lord" - these are hearts that feel acutely their separation from Christ - "open to us" for nothing but the Lord's own utterance will convince many believers of our coming judgment, and of our peril of exclusion from countless rewards, and not merely (as here) from the Kingdom's inaugural banquet. The foolish hope now to get as a, favour what they had forfeited as a right. "But He answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not": you are strangers to Me, because you were not ready to receive Me (Goebel).* Our Lord is most careful not to say what He said to empty professors,- "I NEVER knew you; depart from Me, ye that work iniquity" (Matt. 7: 23): nor could He say it; for had He come earlier in the first shining of their lamps, they were ready. He says, instead, I do not recognize you, as guests; I know you not in the capacity for which I invited you: as you have not paid due honour to either the Bride or the Bridegroom, I cannot rank you with those who have. They were Bridesmaids, but they had fallen out of the procession. It was curiously illustrated a few months ago when a young lady, asked why she passed a young man of her acquaintance without notice, said:- "I have unknown him." The force of the pungent words has proved too clear to be missed. "We must observe that in the present case we have not the terrible addition, Depart from Me. The sentence of exclusion from Christ's presence is not equivalent to that of ver. 41, which dooms souls to the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels. These five virgins had received the grace of God, and used it well for a time, and only failed at the last for lack of care and watchfulness. It is not improbable that the exclusion refers to the deprivation of participation in Messiah's future kingdom, whatever that may be, according to the vision in Rev. 20.* These virgins represent believers divided into two sections; evidently they are all supposed to hold the true faith, and to be pure and undefiled followers of the Lord, to be waiting for His coming, and to love His appearing; but some fail for lack of grace or of perseverance.” (Pulpit Commentary.)
[* It does not seem to me honourable to accept the honey on the Lord's table, and to refuse His garlic. But the Greek lifts some measure of the severity. "It does not mean, ‘I know nothing of you,’ but, according to the well known use of the Greek word … with the accusative of the person - ‘I know you not,’ namely, as bridesmaids and sharers in the feast," (Goebel). Another Greek word means knowledge of character; as in Matt. 7: 23; John 5: 42; 10: 14, 27; 1 Cor. 8: 3; 2 Tim. 2: 19: this Greek word means personal intimacy; Matt. 26: 72, 74; John 1: 33.]
“This inference errs by excess. That for much graver offences the Lord will then receive into the kingdom of glory only those who are ready to receive and stand before Him, but will exclude all the unprepared" (Goebel), other Scriptures in abundance assert; but here, for the mere negation of additional oil, no more is threatened than exclusion from the brief scene of joy, the festival of indescribable honour, portrayed as a Marriage Feast.]
Finally, we are left in no manner of doubt by our Lord Himself as to what the whole purport and purpose of His parable is, its overwhelming stress and strain. "Watch THEREFORE, for ye know not" - ye apostles and disciples, wholly and solely concerned: no dead soul can ever be told to "watch" - "the day nor the hour": not wake to life by conversion; but, watch as those already wide awake. All the Virgins begin ready, but all do not end ready; and nothing is so deadly as the easy doctrine that all will some how come right, apart from urgent warning and constant watchfulness. In Goebel’s admirable summary of the Parable:- "No one is to suppose, because he belongs to the Church of Christ, which waits for the Lord and His coming, that he can neglect personal preparation for His parousia, seeing that on the speedy coming of the Lord in the moment least expected, this want of self-preparation will be revealed, and, because then incapable of remedy, will irretrievably exclude from the blessedness of God's kingdom." The sacred oil of sanctity can be got, for keeping a blazing lamp and a radiant life: but without sleepless vigilance, prudent foresight, incessant guarding against danger and surprise, it will become the dying throb of a famished motor.* "Every kind and degree of Christian goodness is an energy of Christian vigilance" (Greswell). Keep the oil stores replenished: keep the soul brightly burning: grace consumes itself in burning, but "He giveth more grace" (Jas. 4: 6). The "wisdom" of the child of God consists in readiness; and readiness can only be maintained by constant grace. In a Southern Army Camp, an officer, training an awkward squad who would invariably put the wrong foot foremost, at last cried in exasperation, - "Men! take your eyes off your feet; look up, and your feet will follow your eyes." Absorb Christ, and our walk will follow our gaze into the Glory.
[* Mr. Govett, in his two valuable pamphlets on the Parable, makes out a strong case for supposing that the additional oil is the miraculous supply (Gal. 3: 5) of the Holy Ghost, long lost: if so, the Marriage Feast - corresponding to a coronation banquet confined to the privy council and the peers and statesmen of the realm - will be shared only by apostles, prophets, and the miracle-gifted and inspired. The principle of the Parable, however, in any case is certain; and to it I have confined myself:- namely, that readiness, and not regeneration only, is essential for approval at the Advent.]
Not with my life-work, finish’d, past,
Shall I be “satisfied” at last :
Not with the gifts I brought my Lord,
Nor with my knowledge of His Word:
Not with the witness these lips gave
Unto the One Who died to save:
Not with my service, or my love,
Shall I be “satisfied” above.
Faulty and weak is my poor best,
Needing cleansing with all the rest.
Only from Christ come grace and power,
Sure sufficiency every hour.
He is my glory and my song,
He, Who has led me all along;
And in the Light no cloud can dim
I shall be “satisfied” with Him.