The apostles were the original recipients of this oral instruction: The Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 24:3). The parable was part of our Lord's response to questions posed by his close disciples, after he prophesied that the magnificent temple buildings would be destroyed (Matthew 24:2).
Actually, the apostles asked three questions. They thought that they were essentially making a single inquiry (Matthew 24:3). However, our Lord correctly answered two queries: (1) when will Jerusalem be destroyed (Matthew 24:4-35) and (2) when will the Second Coming of the Christ occur (Matthew 24:36-41)? The apostles could not conceive of the destruction of Jerusalem with the resulting utter demolition of the temple before the destruction of the world, at which time the Messiah would come again.
Not even our Lord's apostles fully comprehended that Jesus would leave them, how he would depart or through what Jesus would undergo before his exit. They were equally confused, as even later many Christians generally were, concerning the Second Coming of Christ. Early Christians desired and expected a soon return of Christ (Titus 2:13; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3). Jesus cautioned the apostles lest they should be fooled by false Christs, claiming a Second Coming (Matthew 24:4-5, 23-26).
Immediately after answering the apostles' questions, Jesus re-enforced his teaching with five illustrations: (1) The Goodman of the House and the Thief (Matthew 24:42-44), (2) The Faithful Steward and the Evil Servant (Matthew 24:45-51), (3) The Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), (4) The Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), (5) The Great Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). Hence, chapters 24 and 25 comprise a single occasion of instruction about being prepared for the unannounced conclusion of earth and time, and the commencement of man's eternal habitation, inaugurated with judgment.
Our current study focuses on The Parable of the Ten Virgins. Brother in Christ and cherished friend, Grady Miller has composed an excellent background to this parable as follows.
The parable finds its setting during the week leading up to the death of Jesus on the cross. Matthew records our Lord's entry into the city of Jerusalem in chapter 21. During the next several days we find him cleansing the temple of the moneychangers (21:12-13), debating with his enemies (22:15-23:39), defending his authority to preach and teach (21:23-27), and speaking in parables to the people (21:28-41, 22:1-14).
It was on Tuesday during this last week of the Saviour's life that Jesus departed from the temple for the final time (24:1). As he and his disciples made their last tour of that impressive structure, Jesus shocked his followers by proclaiming, "There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down" (24:2). A little later, the Lord and his band of disciples had reached the Mount of Olives and were sitting on the western slope. There they could enjoy a panoramic view of Jerusalem and its marvelous temple. His disciples (Peter, James, John and Andrew, Mark 13:3) took this opportunity to ask Him to explain His startling prediction, saying, "When shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?" (24:3). [Grady Miller, “The Ten Virgins,” The Parables of Our Saviour, Garfield Heights church of Christ, p. 315.]
"Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them: But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out. But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves. And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut. Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not. Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh" (Matthew 25:1-13).
The Parable of the Ten Virgins deploys the common and joyous occasion of the marriage feast as it was practiced among the Jews. Jesus was a master at using familiar scenes in everyday Bible-times life from which to indelibly inscribe heavenly messages in the minds of his auditors. Jesus was no stranger to the marriage feast, either as a participant (John 2) or as the backdrop for instruction (Matthew 9:15; 22:1-14; John 3:29).
Marriages were usually arranged while the prospective brides and grooms were children. A later stage of this protracted process was the betrothal, which occurred from several months to about a year before the marriage ceremony. The betrothal included the payment of a dowry by the groom to the parents of the bride. From the betrothal forward, though they were not cohabiting yet, dissolution of their marriage covenant required divorce, or in the case of infidelity capital punishment (Deuteronomy 22:23; Matthew 1:19).
Customarily, on the day of their marriage, the bridegroom escorted his bride from her father's house to his house. Along the way, friends of the groom and bride joined the procession. Others waited at the groom's home where the marriage feast was to occur. In their festivities and solemnity surrounding a marriage, chaste, unmarried women were often in attendance. Similarly, bridesmaids accompany brides in our society.
Ten of these virgins awaited the wedding procession. They were outside the groom's home. The ten virgins expected that the wedding party would arrive after dark and brought lamps. None of them, though, knew how long the bridegroom would delay coming. However, five of the virgins had made adequate preparation for such an eventuality.
The lamps were pottery bowls with a handle and top openings for a wick and to fill with oil. For extended use, five virgins brought extra olive oil.
After considerable delay and after all ten virgins fell asleep, the groom arrived. The five virgins whose lamps were extinguished for lack of oil turned from the oncoming procession to acquire more oil for their lamps. While they were absent everyone present entered the house and the door was shut. Later, the unprepared five returned and were denied entry. These five neither expected the delay nor did they anticipate that they would be denied admission to the marriage feast.
In this parable, the bridegroom represents Jesus Christ. Christ is also the groom in 2 Corinthians 11:2 where the bride is the church. The bride is not mentioned in the parable, though, because she is not essential to Jesus' teaching on that occasion. The virgins represent believers or members of the Lord's kingdom. The number ten was used by the Jews to signify completeness (e.g., "ten sons," 1 Samuel 1:8). The delay pertained to the delay of and the unannounced Second Coming of Christ. The shut door was prophetic of the point beyond which no one can make further preparation for eternity. The refusal of the bridegroom to admit the five virgins is comparable to our Lord's refusal to admit to heaven disobedient souls (Matthew 7:21-23).
The ten virgins from all available information in the parable were equally morally pure. Five of them merely had made inadequate preparation, indicative of insufficient watchfulness. On this basis, the ten are styled "wise" and "foolish."
It is not enough to be in the Lord's kingdom. Likewise, this parable does not apply to those in any generation who have made no preparation (i.e., who are not in the kingdom). This parable, like the four other illustrations involved in the discourse, encourages watchfulness and faithfulness upon the part of God's people. "In this parable, he continues the solemn declaration of the uncertainty of the time of his return and of the necessity of being ready for such an event." [Herbert Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible, Zondervan Publishing House, p. 237.] "Christ's coming is certain, but the time is uncertain." [W. Gaddys Roy, Sermon Outlines on the Parables of Jesus, W. Gaddys Roy, p. 107.]
Clearly, Jesus here taught personal responsibility and the possibility of apostasy. The wise maidens were unable to divide their oil with the foolish ones, lest none would have sufficient oil. Note also that the judgment will be a personal examination. At the judgment bar of God, no one will be able to intercede for the lost and no additional preparation will be possible (2 Corinthians 5:10; Hebrews 9:27). There will be no time for added preparation at the Second Coming of Christ!
Incidentally, in the Matthew 24-25 speech, because no one knows when Christ will return, and therefore watchfulness is urgent, all the date-setters are wrong. The real question of eternal importance is: ". . . Will I be ready when the Bridegroom returns?" [Lockyer, p. 241.]