What lesson was Jesus Christ communicating in the parable of the five wise and five foolish virgins? How can we be sure we’re among the wise?
Jesus once told a parable—a fictional story with a spiritual lesson—about 10 virgins who “took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom” (Matthew 25:1).
Today, that might seem like an odd topic to talk about. Ten virgins?
Why 10? Why virgins? What was their role in this wedding?
And the answer is . . . it’s difficult to say with any certainty. The first-century Jewish audience Jesus was talking to would have been familiar with these customs, but we’re 2,000 years removed from the context of this story. That makes it more than a little tricky to understand.
Turning to biblical commentaries makes the issue more complicated, not less. There’s a wide range of opinions on what role the virgins played in the wedding, where the bridegroom was coming from, whether he was with the bride or coming to retrieve her, whether the virgins were departing separately from their own houses or together from the bride’s house, whether they were holding lamps or torches—essentially, there’s disagreement over every detail in this short parable.
What we know about the parable of the 10 virgins
So, let’s take a step back and focus on what we do know:
Ten virgins had a job to do in regard to a wedding. Specifically, they were waiting for the arrival of the groom, so that they could accompany him to the wedding feast (see verse 10, New American Standard Bible). Since each of the virgins had a lamp, this stage of the wedding appears to have been unfolding in the evening.
The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges suggests that “the usual Jewish custom was for the ‘friends of the bridegroom’ to conduct the bride to her husband’s home; and when the procession arrived, the bridegroom went forth to lead the bride across the threshold . . . The imagery of the parable, however, implies that the bridegroom himself went to fetch his bride perhaps from a great distance, while a group of maidens await his return ready to welcome him in Oriental fashion with lamps and flambeaux.”
As the parable continues, we learn that five of the virgins were wise, and five of them were foolish. The five wise virgins took extra oil for their lamps, while the five foolish ones didn’t.
The bridegroom didn’t come back in the expected time frame. He was delayed. And the delay ultimately separates the two groups of virgins.
Here’s the rest of the parable in Christ’s own words:
“While the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept.
“And at midnight a cry was heard: ‘Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!’ Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But 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.’ And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut.
“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’” (verses 5-12).
Jesus didn’t leave us in the dark about the lesson of this story. He concluded, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming” (verse 12).
How prepared are we?
That’s the message. We don’t need to understand every intricacy of a first-century Jewish wedding to understand what Jesus wanted to show us. Jesus Christ is returning to establish His Kingdom on this earth. When? We don’t know. We don’t get to know. We just know that it’s going to happen, and that the job of the Church is to be ready.
In the parable, it was the job of the 10 virgins to be ready for the arrival of the bridegroom. It’s easy to focus on the fact that they all fell asleep, but that’s not the point. They all fell asleep. If anything, this emphasizes the length of the delay. The bridegroom took longer than expected—so much longer that the virgins, wise and foolish alike, were too tired to continue without resting. The sleep itself wasn’t what determined who was wise and who was foolish.
The only recorded difference between the two groups—the one single detail that set them apart—was the amount of oil they took. The foolish took only what was in their lamps; the wise brought extra.In fact, the only recorded difference between the two groups—the one single detail that set them apart—was the amount of oil they took. The foolish took only what was in their lamps; the wise brought extra.
The point isn’t that the foolish virgins came completely unprepared—it’s that they didn’t come prepared enough. They were ready—as long as the return happened within a specific window. Outside of that window, they didn’t have enough fuel reserves to keep going.
That’s important. This isn’t the parable of the good virgins and the evil virgins. This isn’t the parable of the true believers and the impostors. It’s the parable of the wise and the foolish—the parable of those who took the time to prepare and those who didn’t.
The wise virgins were prepared to wait as long as it took. The foolish virgins weren’t. In the end, that lack of fuel cost them everything.
We must build up our oil reserves
As Christians in progress—men and women, young and old—what should we take from this parable?
First and foremost, there’s the lesson Jesus spelled out for us: stay watchful.
Being watchful, in this context, has a great deal to do with being ready to spring into action regardless of the hour. All the virgins were waiting to meet the bridegroom. All the virgins woke up when they heard the cry. But only the wise virgins had paid attention to how much oil they had left. Only the wise virgins were prepared for a delay—and so only the wise virgins were able to accomplish what they set out to do.
What is the oil in the parable of the 10 virgins?
And what does the oil picture, exactly? Jesus didn’t explain that in this parable. In other biblical passages, oil is tied closely to God’s Holy Spirit (1 Samuel 16:13; Zechariah 4:2-6), and that may well be the implication here. The oil pictures something that can’t be transferred from one person to another—and having enough oil was the dividing line between those who made it and those who didn’t.
Our oil reserves—a measure of how spiritually ready and prepared we are for the return of Christ—are not a shareable resource. I can’t help you be more prepared by somehow sharing my readiness with you—and you can’t share yours with me. It’s an intensely personal, individual resource. All we can do is build up our own reserves.
Christian living. Bible study. Prayer. Engaging with the Word of God and putting what it says into practice. There’s no easy trick or simple procedure to guarantee us a place in the Kingdom. Christianity—following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ—is a lifelong occupation, not a side hobby.
God doesn’t expect us to be perfect in these things—but He does expect us to spend our lives pursuing them. And while it’s true that we can’t share our oil, it’s also true that we can encourage each other in those pursuits. “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works . . . exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Waiting for the Bridegroom
The Bridegroom is, from our perspective, delayed. The Church has been expecting Christ to return ever since He first left (Acts 1:6-11)—and now, here we are, nearly 2,000 years later. Still waiting.
Will our flames burn out as we turn our attention from the return of Christ to the distractions this world has to offer?We have to be prepared to keep waiting. There will be so many opportunities to let our oil dwindle—to get distracted with the things of this world, to lose focus on the things that matter.
Will our flames burn out as we turn our attention from the return of Christ to the distractions this world has to offer? Or will we continually add to our supply of oil by engaging with our Creator and His Word?
To be clear, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins doesn’t tell us that we’re not allowed to have any hobbies or interests outside of Bible study and Christian living. It tells us instead that it’s very easy to get to a place where we stop focusing on the important things—and it warns us that there will come a time when it’s too late to refocus.
The Bridegroom is returning. The Kingdom is coming. No matter how long it takes, our job is stay watchful and be ready.
The only way to run out of oil is to stop making the effort.
This article was written at a reader’s suggestion. If you’d like to suggest a topic for future editions of “Christianity in Progress,” you can do so anonymously at lifehopeandtruth.com/ideas. We look forward to hearing from you!