The five wise virgins, the five foolish ones, and the lamps and the oil
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There are many different views on the meaning of the parable of the virgins, and what the wise and foolish virgins symbolised. Some writers have claimed that they “represent the church”, whatever that might mean, while some have noted that it would be unwise to suggest that. Others have claimed that those virgins “denote the purity of the Christian doctrine and character”, it not being clear what that could refer to. And so on; there are many kinds of claims and interpretations in regard to the meaning of Matthew 25:1-13.
This study takes a closer look at that parable. It will be considered what Jesus might have meant by the five wise virgins, the five foolish ones, and the lamps and the oil.
Here is an English translation of the parable in question:
Matthew 25:1 Then the kingdom of Heaven shall be compared to ten virgins a who taking their lamps, went out to a meeting of the bridegroom. 2 And five of them were wise, and five foolish. 3 Those being foolish, taking their lamps, did not take oil with them. 4 But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. 5 But the bridegroom delaying, all nodded and slept. 6 And at midnight, a cry occurred: Behold, the bridegroom comes! Go out to meet him. 7 Then all those virgins arose and prepared 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, No, lest there not be enough for us and you. But rather, go to those who sell and buy for yourselves. 10 But they going away to buy, the bridegroom came. And those ready went in with him to the wedding feast, and the door was shut. 11 And afterwards, the rest of the virgins also came, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. 12 But answering, he said, Truly I say to you, I do not know you. 13 Therefore, watch, for you do not know the day nor the hour in which the Son of man comes. b (LIT, note signs added)
a Verse 1: The Greek noun which here is translated as “virgin”, is parthenos. In old Greek, that word could refer to both males and females. But, one must keep in mind that things mentioned in parables are often symbolic, and that all details do not always have exact counterparts in real life.
b Verse 13: The words “in which the Son of man comes” in the last part of that verse, do not have support in all Greek manuscripts. But, the words “therefore, watch, for you do not know the day nor the hour”, appear to be original.
Please note that Jesus spoke those words to and regarding those who were listening to him, there and then, in the first century. This applies also to the preceding chapter, Matthew 24. The articles ig02.htm, hg04.htm and hg05.htm can be helpful reading, in that context.
Again, there were ten virgins in that parable. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. Matthew 25:3 clearly states, regarding the foolish virgins: “They took no oil with them”. Apparently, they only had empty lamps, and no oil.
That those empty lamps could still be lighted, is not so strange, because one can light the lamp’s wick, even if there is not a single drop of oil in its container. (Even those ancient bowl-like lamps, which burned olive oil, needed a wick.) But, if there is no oil in the lamp, the wick burns up and the fire goes out.
In that parable it was night – dark. In darkness, one needs light. And again, lamps of the kind that this parable refers to, need oil, in order to produce light.
It seems that here, just as in a number of other bible-passages, the oil (olive oil) was a symbol for the Holy Spirit.
(A note: In this article, the word “saints” refers to those who received the Holy Spirit in the first century.)
The Bridegroom of that parable obviously pictured Jesus. Also: When the saints received the Holy Spirit, they became betrothed to Jesus. After this, a wedding feast was coming – the one that is mentioned for instance in Revelation 19:7-9.
Again, the oil of that parable must have symbolised the Spirit of God. For instance 1 John 2:27 shows that the Holy Spirit was seen as an “anointing” which the saints received. – In that connection, let us note something the apostle Paul wrote to the saints in Ephesus, regarding how God had given his Spirit to them as a “pledge”. It appears that even this had to do with their betrothal to Jesus.
Ephesians 1:12 That we may be unto the praise of his glory: we who before hoped in Christ: 13 In whom you also, after you had heard the word of truth (the gospel of your salvation), in whom also believing, you were signed with the holy Spirit of promise. 14 Who is the pledge c of our inheritance, d unto the redemption of acquisition, unto the praise of his glory. (DR1899, note signs added)
c Verse 14 – pledge: In old customs, a woman was at betrothal given something valuable as a “pledge”, as a token of her betrothal, as a guarantee and witness of her right to receive, in due time, the full possession of what she had been promised. – In old customs in that part of the world, a betrothal was a binding contract regarding marriage. In fact, the betrothal was the marriage contract. When God betrothed people (the saints) to his son Jesus, he gave them the Holy Spirit as such a pledge (Ephesians 1:13-14, quoted above).
d Verse 14 mentions also an inheritance for those saints. Galatians 3:16 and its context tell us that the Promise and Inheritance in question belonged to a single Offspring of Abraham (Jesus). The saints were betrothed to Jesus. Through this, they came to share his Inheritance.
As was noted earlier, it appears that the Holy Spirit was the “oil” of the parable of Matthew 25:1-12, the oil which the five wise virgins had.
And again, when God in the first century betrothed people to his son Jesus, he gave them his Spirit as a “pledge”. Later they were, just as the wise virgins of the parable, taken to the Wedding feast (“the Marriage supper of the Lamb”, Revelation 19).
In contrast to that, the five foolish virgins lacked that “oil” – they did not have the Holy Spirit – and so, they were not taken to the wedding feast.
A note: The parable of Matthew 25:1-13 speaks about “buying oil”. It is clear that there is no way to “buy” God’s Spirit. So, let us assume that the “buying” in that parable simply refers to the process which the saints went through: Repentance from wrongdoing, turning to God, and being baptised, after which God gave the Holy Spirit to them.
(The article hh01.htm considers the matter of the distribution of God’s Spirit.)
Again, it seems that the five wise virgins of that parable served as a symbol for the saints who received God’s Spirit, as an “anointing”, 1 John 2:27, and also as a “seal” and “pledge” – see 2 Corinthians 1:22 and 5:5 and Ephesians 1:14 for instance in NASB.
This leads to the question, whom did the five foolish virgins symbolise? Some have claimed that they represented people who had “lost” the Holy Spirit. Is that correct? – Or, could it be that the five foolish virgins symbolised people who in one way or another rejected Jesus and the New Covenant, and thus also the Holy Spirit so that they never received it?
Matthew 25:3 The five who were foolish took no oil for their lamps (NLT96, highlighting added)
This must mean that the five foolish virgins never acquired the needed oil, in the first place. Because of this, they could not use their lamps for going out into the night when the time came, in order to meet the bridegroom, and so, they were not taken to the wedding.
Again, some have suggested that the five foolish virgins of Matthew 25 could refer to people who had “lost” the Holy Spirit. But, that concept does not really fit into that parable’s frame and wording.
Now, if the oil served as a symbol for the Holy Spirit – and it certainly seems so – then it is important to realise that either one has the Holy Spirit, or then one does not have it. And so: The “oil” of that parable was lasting and did not “burn out”.
When one considers all the details, what crystallises is that the foolish virgins must have symbolised people who rejected Jesus and the New Covenant. – In other words, it could be that through that parable, Jesus sent a warning to the Jews. After all, he must have known that most of them would reject him and the New Covenant and through that also the Holy Spirit.
A note: Matthew 24:1 indicates that Jesus spoke those words to his disciples, but we must keep in mind that Jesus “drew crowds”, wherever he was. Here, he was obviously in a public place, and we can assume that numerous Jews were listening to him.
See also the “recommended reading” section, below.
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Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters
An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → hs09.htm
How to understand the Bible. Easy keys to deeper understanding of the Scriptures. → ig02.htm
What happened to the saints, in the first century? Also, some notes on the “early church”. → hg04.htm
Are parousia and rapture biblical concepts? → hg05.htm
Who are the 144000 and the great multitude of Revelation 7? And, who are the first-fruits or virgins of Revelation 14:1-4? → gr03.htm
A study on the “new creation” of 2 Corinthians 5:17. What did the apostle Paul really mean? → ih05.htm
What does the Bible say about the Great Tribulation? On Matthew 24:21 and Revelation 7:14. → hr04.htm
John 15, “I am the vine, you are the branches”. The parable of the vinedresser, the vine, the branches and the fruit. → ha11.htm
The Holy Spirit. On the distribution of God’s Spirit. → hh01.htm
Matthew 16:18, the translation “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”. What was Jesus talking about? What is the immortal ekklêsia or assembly which he said he would form? Is it an earthly religious organisation – a church – or, is it an assembly which has as its members the saints who have become immortals? → ia01.htm
The origin and meaning of the word “church”. → hg06.htm
“Church eras” – do they exist? Are there seven “eras of the Church”, as some say – “Sardis era”, “Philadelphian era”, “Laodicean era” and so on? → ha03.htm
What does the Bible say about Heaven? Were the saints to go there, and if so, for how long? What about others? What does it look like, in Heaven? → gh04.htm
The “Great white throne judgment” – the time-period when both the living and the dead will be judged. When will it take place, and where, and who will do the judging? → gr06.htm
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