There are quite a number of books that I have bought over the years with every intention to get to reading one day. They sit waiting for just the right time to crack open. Some people like to stock pile emergency items for their pantry in case of some sort of national disaster. I may not have any freeze-dried food and purified water ready for such a time, but I have some good books to keep me going.
I decided to finally get to one of them that I give that “I haven’t forgotten about you” smile to when passing by on the shelf: The Parable of the Ten Virgins, by Thomas Shepard (1605-1649). I was ready for a new commentary to go through for some personal Bible study, and now it looks like I am going to be spending a great deal of time going through thirteen verses. After all, Shepard preached for four years on it and this book consists of 635 pages of his edited sermon notes. Of course, the original title of his sermon series, in typical Puritan fashion, gives us the full “elevator-pitch,” as we’d call it today: “Wherein the difference between the sincere Christian and the most refined hypocrite, the nature and characters of saving and of common grace, the dangers and diseases incident to most flourishing churches of Christians, and other spiritual truths of greatest importance, are cleverly discovered and practically improved.” With a subtitle like that, you can forget about capitalizing the words! But, I was captivated by how relevant these words are to the church today.
This parable of the ten virgins, found in Matthew 25:1-13, has always been a haunting warning to me. Shepard points out from the beginning that it is not enough for us to be watchful. This parable persuades us that “continuance and perseverance in [watchfulness] from a prudent foresight of the coming of Christ” is needed to make it into the marriage feast (14). These ten virgins had much in common:
- They are all virgins; virgin professors.
2. They were all awake and watchful for some time, ready to meet the bridegroom; and hence it is said, “They took their lamps.”
3. They all had so much faith as to go out to meet the bridegroom. (15)
And yet, there were clear differences:
4. Generally, “five were wise” and “five were foolish,” verse 2.
5. Specifically, the foolish took lamps, but no oil; the wise did both, verses 3, 4. (15)
You don’t read anything about the lifestyles of the five being given to licentious sin. Rather, I think Shepard’s phrase “refined hypocrite” from his title gives us a lot to think about. Wisdom suddenly takes on a more urgent importance to the saint. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5)! We need wisdom to make it into the feast. And this parable suggests that a great number of professing Christians in the church are foolish. This is how Shepard describes the state of the visible church when Christ returns:
They shall not be openly profane, corrupt, and scandalous, but virgin professors, awakened for some reason out of carnal security; stirring, lively Christians, not preserving their chastity and purity merely in a way of works, but waiting for Christ in a covenant of grace; only some of these, and a good part of these, shall be indeed wise, stored with spiritual wisdom, filled with the power of grace; but others of them, and a great part of them too, shall be found foolish at the coming of the Lord Jesus. (16)
This is a sobering reflection. It reminds me of the serious warning in Hebrews 6:4-6:
For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.
There are many in the church who have tasted and seen that the Lord is good. They have participated in the means of grace. They even fit in. They walk with us and talk like us. But they turn away from the truth, do not continue to exercise faith by actively engaging in the gospel truths that have been revealed to them in God’s Word, and they do not endure to the end. They turn away because they never were really one of us. Their faith was not real. You can’t pretend in your own strength and make it to the end.
Every true believer will persevere to the end, but faith is a fighting grace. Waiting isn’t enough. We fight to hold fast to our anchor, our Bridegroom, who is holding fast to us. As we wait for his return, we prepare for it. And fruit will be produced in us. We will become wise.
These warnings are real. They are true. But God’s people will hear them like a child who heeds his father’s admonitions, or like a sheep that knows their shepherd’s voice. And yet this parable is not merely a warning. It also holds out that glorious day approaching which we are waiting for. We are invited to the marriage feast. The visible church, the ten virgins, has been called out to meet the Bridegroom. Who wouldn’t want to be ready for this great day?
*Originally published on December 5, 2014.