Jesus often taught using parables—simple stories—to get across deep spiritual truths. He told dozens of parables during his three-year ministry, and many of them relate to the end of the age and his return. I want us to look at two of them in this post. They are both in Matthew chapter 25. The first one is called the parable of the ten virgins, or the parable of the wise and foolish virgins.
Matthew 25:1–12 1 Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’
How many of you have ever run out of gas while driving? I have on a few occasions over the years. According to AAA, the automobile club, more than half a million people run out of gas in the US every year. Besides flat tires, dead batteries, and misplaced keys, running out of gas ranks right up there in the reasons why people call for roadside service.
I could understand this happening a generation ago, when gas gauges were not entirely accurate, and when we didn’t have all the electronics. But now we have warning lights that our fuel is running low. I have a trip computer that shows me how many miles I have left before I’m empty. Most tanks have a reserve in them, so that even when you do hit E, there’s still some gas in there. So, with all the advantages of technology, why do we continue to run out of gas as often today as people did years ago? You think about that, and we’ll come back to the question in a bit.
The Wise and Foolish Virgins
This parable is taken from the marriage customs of Jesus’ day. The ten virgins, or young women, are what we might call bridesmaids today. They are friends or companions of the bride who are gathered together, awaiting the coming of her bridegroom, whom they expect to welcome with lamps, and then join in a procession to the wedding feast.
Five of them Jesus called wise, and five of them he called foolish. What was the difference between these two groups of five young women? What made the foolish ones foolish?
The only difference in this parable between these two groups, according to Jesus, is the fact that the foolish ones took no oil with them. They had their lamps, but no fuel.
All ten of the virgins doze off while waiting for the bridegroom, and then suddenly at midnight, they are awakened by the news that the bridegroom has come. So, they wake up and trim their lamps. However, the five foolish virgins didn’t bring any oil with them for their lamps. So, they asked the other group for some of their oil, but were told that they should go into town to buy their own oil.
But while they were out shopping, the bridegroom came and the door to the feast was shut. When the five foolish virgins came later and asked to be let in, the bridegroom said, “I don’t know who you are,” and they were shut out of the feast.
This parable deals with salvation—being spiritually prepared for the return of the bridegroom, Jesus. The five foolish virgins had no oil. They were just empty containers. They were spiritually dead.
But looking from the outside, these five foolish virgins were almost indistinguishable from the five wise virgins. They all were invited to the wedding celebration, and they all came, expecting to participate in the wedding. They all waited expectantly for the bridegroom. The five foolish virgins even addressed the groom as “Lord.” But they were shut out.
Notice that when asked, the five wise virgins would not share their oil with the five foolish, not because they were selfish, but rather because sharing their oil may have meant that all ten would run short of oil.
The fact is, the saved cannot share what they have in Christ with the lost. The lost will not enter heaven based on the salvation others have received. Each person is accountable before God. Each of us must trust in Christ for salvation and not count on the salvation of our parents or our pastor or anyone else.
Also notice that once the bridegroom returned, there was neither time nor opportunity for the five foolish virgins to obtain oil. In the same way, once Jesus returns, there will be neither time nor opportunity for anyone to change their course of unbelief. There is a “point of no return,” after which one’s rejection of Christ cannot be reversed. For some that will be the day of their death; for others it will be the Day of the Lord, when those who refused to receive the love of the truth will be sealed in their unbelief.
These ten young women were probably friends. They were in the same wedding party. They were all waiting for the bridegroom. What this shows us is that it is possible to be in close contact with Christians, and with the church, and yet not be saved. Jesus told a similar parable in the Gospel of Luke:
Luke 13:23–27 23 And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, 24 “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. 25 When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ 26 Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ 27 But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’”
Jesus is warning us in this parable that there will be a number of people who look like Christians, who associate with Christians, who go to church, and who might even think they are Christians, but they will be shocked to learn that they are not saved at the return of Christ. That is a sobering thought.
This text is not seeking to create uncertainty and doubt in the heart of a true believer. It’s not seeking to rob the Christian of his assurance. But it is seeking to warn those who have a false assurance, but no salvation. In the last days, just as in Jesus’ time and today, there will be those who appear to be Christians, but are not.
So, the first thing you must do to be ready for Christ’s return is to be sure you have oil, to trust in Christ alone for salvation, to recognize your hopeless condition as a sinner before a holy God, and to repent of your sin and rebellion, and believe in Jesus and his payment for you on the cross.
Why do some wait until it’s too late? Why did the five foolish virgins have no oil? This brings us back to our earlier question. Why do people continue to run out of gas today?
First, people don’t believe the warning signs. They see the light come on and think, “I must have more gas than that!” Or, “I’ve seen that warning light before, and I’ve always been able to get to the gas station before running out.” “I know the lights on, but my odometer tells me I still have 80 miles I can drive.”
We have abundant warning signs that all is not well. The Bible says that we are all sinners, under divine condemnation, headed for hell. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. The Bible says that we are dead in our sins and thus unable to save ourselves. The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord. God’s Word says that we cannot be saved by doing good works, but only through the work of Jesus on the cross. The only way of salvation is for us to acknowledge our sin and to trust in the sacrificial death of Christ.
Second, those who run out of gas are lulled into a false confidence by the fact that everything appears to be fine at the moment. The engine is running smoothly; we don’t hear any chugs or sputtering of the engine. And so we feel confident in our choice to not purchase fuel.
People may look around the world and things seem fine. They have a nice job, good health, and a nice retirement fund. They don’t need Jesus. But they are ignoring the true state of things. They are under the wrath of God. Things are not fine. Listen, don’t be lulled into thinking that everything is fine with your soul, when it’s not.
Third, people run out of gas because they wrongly suppose that they have plenty of time to get it later. We know when our gas is low. We can see the light on the dash and see the arrow pointing to E. But we convince ourselves that there is still plenty of time to deal with the problem. There will surely be another gas station ahead, and not too far, and the price might even be a bit lower. This false confidence has gotten many people into trouble.
Those who think they will have other chances to come to faith in Jesus are making a very dangerous assumption. The coming of our Lord will be sudden and unexpected, and when he comes, there are no second chances. Your death could come tomorrow; it could come today. Once we die or the Lord returns, we will have no more opportunity to turn to him in faith; our doom is sealed.
We must be prepared now by acknowledging our sin, our helplessness, our need for salvation, and by trusting in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus in our place. Being ready for Jesus’ return means trusting in him, and having our sins forgiven.
So, the first way to be ready for Jesus’ return is to have oil—to be trusting in Christ when he comes. Now let’s continue with the next parable in Matthew 25, the parable of the talents.
The Parable of the Talents
Matthew 25:14–23 14 “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here, I have made two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’
Let’s stop there for now. A master is going on a long journey. He calls three of his servants to himself and entrusts his property to them. He gives one servant five talents, another two, and another one. And two of them invest their master’s money, and are rewarded for it. This is a parable about stewardship and labor and fruitfulness.
First, let’s clear up one misconception. The word “talent” here does not mean gifts and abilities like in English. It was a measure of weight. It was the largest measure of weight used for weighing precious metals. A Roman talent was equal to about 70 pounds. Most commentators think that the master probably gave them silver. So, the master gave to one servant 350 pounds of silver (worth about $70,000 dollars today), to another he gave 140 pounds of silver (worth about $28,000), and to a third he gave 70 pounds of silver (worth about $14,000). These are not insignificant sums of money.
One question we may ask is, “Why did the master give them differing amounts?” Well, Jesus tells us why. Verse 15: “To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.” The master knew the abilities of each of his servants and apportioned out his possessions to them according to their abilities. And it is the same with us. Some of us have been given greater resources; some fewer resources. That is up to God to determine. But we are all accountable to use what he has chosen to give us.
We are told that the five-talent servant “went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more.” He immediately went to work with his master’s money, and he doubled it. The second servant, likewise, doubled his two talents into four. These servants seemed eager to show their master what they had done: “Look master, you gave me five talents, here, I have made five more talents!”
And because they were industrious and faithful and fruitful, they were commended and rewarded. They were told “well done, good job.” The master called them “good and faithful” servants, which means useful and trustworthy. They were given even greater responsibility because of their wise investment and hard work, and then he says, “Enter into the joy of your master.”
I hope those are the words you long to hear when you stand before Christ. But these accolades and rewards won’t happen automatically. To gain them requires work and investment. I’m not talking about working for salvation, but about rewards for faithfulness.
You see, there are two great judgments coming upon men and women. One of them is called the Great White Throne Judgment; you’ll find that in Revelation 20. It is the final judgment when the dead of all ages are brought to life and must give an account to God. Books are opened and everyone is judged according to his deeds. Only those whose names are found written in the Lamb’s book of life are spared; the rest are found guilty and cast into the lake of fire.
This is a judgment of salvation. This is the story of the wise and foolish virgins. The ones who are spiritually prepared—through faith in Christ and his work on the cross, those who are found righteous because of Christ’s righteousness given to them—these are the ones who gain entrance into the feast, who are welcomed into God’s eternal kingdom. The rest are shut out.
The second judgment Scripture speaks about is called the Judgment Seat of Christ. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:10, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body.” And then in 1 Corinthians 3, he details what this day will be like:
1 Corinthians 3:11–14 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
This judgment is an evaluation for believers. God will test the quality of each Christian’s work. Those things that were gold, silver, and precious stones will survive the test, and we will be rewarded. These are those good investments that you have made with your Master’s possessions—with the money he’s given you, the talents and gifts he’s given you, the time he’s given you, the opportunities he’s given you—using those things for his gain and his glory. Just as the five- and two-talent servants were richly rewarded for their faithfulness, so will you be.
But, those works we do which are wood, hay, and straw will burn up. They will fail the test. These are the worthless investments we have made with our Master’s possessions—squandering the money he has given us, ignoring and not developing the talents and gifts he has given us, wasting the time he’s given us, or using those things for our own gain and our own glory rather than his.
Notice that this person will be saved, Paul says, but only as through fire; he will suffer the loss of reward.
Let’s finish this parable with the master’s dealings with the one-talent servant.
Matthew 25:24–30 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
The master’s dealings with the third servant is a very different matter. This servant came to his master with only the talent his master had originally entrusted to him. He did not increase his master’s money at all. He gave him no return.
This servant clearly did not know his master. He considered his master to be a harsh and cruel man, a man who was demanding, and who expected gain where he had not labored. We know our Master to be good and merciful and loving. This servant was afraid to take a risk, so he simply hid the money, and now he returned it, without any gain.
The master rebuked this slave for being evil and lazy. If what he thought about the master were true, at least he should have put his money in the bank and returned it with interest. So, the master took his talent from him and gave it to the one who had earned ten. And then he cast this fellow into the outer darkness, where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.
I believe in the case of this servant—the one-talent servant—we are talking about an unbeliever, because he was ultimately cast into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth—that is not a picture of heaven, but of hell.
He was given some knowledge of God, some access to the truth, some awareness of truth—but he ignored it. He buried it. He did nothing with it. And so, when the master returned, he was cast out. This man is like the foolish virgins. He was not saved, and this showed by his lack of fruitfulness.
So, two questions lie before us. First, do you have oil in your lamp? In other words, have you trusted Christ? Do you have salvation? When the bridegroom returns will you be spiritually ready to enter the feast, or might you be turned away for unbelief.
And secondly, if you are a believer, what are you doing with the possessions your Master has entrusted to you? Are you investing them? Does he consider you a useful and trustworthy servant with what he has given you? Or are you squandering his money, his time, the gifts and abilities he’s given you?
What is the fruitful labor God has given to you? What is your ministry, your unique contribution to the kingdom of God? What is it that you want him to find you doing when he returns? What are you doing with the money he has given you—spending it all on yourself and your comforts, or investing it in his work, in kingdom business?
Some of you might think that your productive years are behind you—that you can just go into cruise control and enjoy your retirement. You earned it; now enjoy it. If that’s where you are, let me challenge you. The Bible knows nothing of retirement. If you have health and strength, God expects you to use it for him and his kingdom. Jesus’ call to a life of radical, self-denying discipleship doesn’t end at age 65. Moses was 80 when he led God’s people out of Egypt!
But maybe you don’t have health and strength and physical capacity. There’s still great work that you can do for your Lord. And that is pray. Pray for me, pray for our church, pray for the lost. Prayer is never a waste.
Don’t bury what God has entrusted to you; go to work with it, for the glory of God, and for your eternal rewards.
CT Studd, missionary to China, India, and Africa, penned this poem, which goes right along with our study today.
Two little lines I heard one day,
Traveling along life’s busy way;
Bringing conviction to my heart,
And from my mind would not depart;
Only one life, ‘twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
Only one life, yes only one,
Soon will its fleeting hours be done;
Then, in ‘that day’ my Lord to meet,
And stand before His Judgment seat;
Only one life, ‘twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
Oh let my love with fervor burn,
And from the world now let me turn;
Living for Thee, and Thee alone,
Bringing Thee pleasure on Thy throne;
Only one life, ‘twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
Only one life, yes only one,
Now let me say, “Thy will be done”;
And when at last I’ll hear the call,
I know I’ll say “twas worth it all”;
Only one life, ‘twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.”
How we spend this life is a serious matter. We are all responsible before God—first to believe in his Son, Jesus. And then secondly, to live our lives for his glory and not our own. In many ways, this life is a preparation and training ground for life in the age to come. What you do here has eternal ramifications. I pray that we will live each day in light Christ’s coming.