[December 11, 2011] Last Sunday we picked up on Jesus’ teaching after He pronounced judgment on the City of David that refused Him, the Temple and the Judaism of the Second Temple. In chapter 24 He spoke to “these things” and the sign of His coming and the consummation of the age. After He spoke verses 29-31, which describe the coming of the Son of Man in relation to the fulfillment of the hope of Israel, He turned to the church. While Israel would see the sign of the Son of Man in heaven—they would recognize Him and believe so that when He appeared for them they would see Him and be able to welcome Him with the words, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matthew 23:39)—the church of the Messiah would have no such warning before those who watching and ready were “taken” (received to Himself).
Jesus spoke of the Day of Judgment coming on the world unexpectedly and “taking all away” (24:39; the word is airō) but the one who is ready being “taken” (24:40-41; the word is paralambanō, to receive). Who is the one who is ready? Jesus tells us that not all His believers will be ready. 24:43—25:30 describes this situation. In the first parable (verses 43-44), the household was not watching and his goods were stolen by a thief. In the second parable (verses 45-51) a slave was set in charge of the members of the household and was caught off guard when the Master returned. In the second parable, the slave was punished. The precise interpretation of both parables, as I pointed out last week, is difficult but the gist is clear: the believer must watch and be ready. The interpretation I settled on and recommend is that the unprepared believer is the householder whose spiritual “goods” were robbed by the world and the steward who neglected and abused either his or her own “members” (as in Romans 6) or his or her fellow slaves in the church. Such believers, when they appear before the judgment seat of Christ, will not be allow to enjoy the kingdom—they will lose their reward—until they have been disciplined.
The next two parables (25:1-13 and 14-30) continue along the same line.
Some people would prefer to see all such parables as describing the situation of Christendom and that the Lord’s judgment divides between the true believer and the mere nominal Christian, the Christian in name only. In a “Christian” society this way of seeing the parables can be tempting, but it is also anachronistic. The normal situation of the church in the world is the church being under persecution. The tendency for there to be many nominal Christians is not there. Besides this way of interpreting the words of Jesus requires that we imagine that the true church is “invisible” and the “visible” church is a mixed field of wheat and tares. The New Testament does not support such a view. To interpret all of Jesus’ words on this basis requires that we can almost never take Jesus’ words of warning to His disciples at face value. As uncomfortable as this may seem, His true believers “will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” Not only will “each one of us give an account concerning himself to God” (Romans 14:10-12) but when “we must all be manifested before the judgment seat of Christ … each one [will] receive the things done through the body according to what he has practiced, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10).
Does this mean that a believer can lose her or his salvation? In a sense they have not yet attained their salvation. It still awaits us. On the other hand, we do “have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of offenses, according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:7). This cannot be taken away. But “the work of each will become manifest; for the day will declare it, because it is revealed by fire, and the fire itself will prove each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built upon the foundation remains, he will receive a reward; if anyone’s work is consumed, he will suffer loss, but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:13-15). The believer can suffer loss in the age to come, but the age to come is not the end. It precedes and prepares for the eternal age.
These words of Paul speak in terms of our work. The Scriptures speak of the judgment of believers as having many aspects. Not only the outer content of our life—our work and what we have done through the body—will be judged but also the inner content of our soul. The following parable addresses this.
The Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13)
The interpretation of the parable of the ten virgins ought to straightforward. The number ten, like the Ten Commandments and indicative of our ten fingers, signifies responsibility. It is twice five, and five is four (what is created) plus one (the divine). Whatever we make of that, the ten virgins all represent the Lord’s believers (2 Corinthians 11:2). They all are going forth (from the world) to meet the bridegroom, who represents Christ (Matthew 9:15; John 3:29; etc.) coming for His bride, the church. Each of the virgins has a lamp that has oil in it and is lit. Such are believers in the world. We all are anticipating the coming of Christ for His bride; we all have the oil of the Holy Spirit in our spirit, which is a lamp (Proverbs 20:27). The flame of that lamp sheds light on our soul (“searching all the innermost parts of the inner being”) and “witnesses with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16); but it also enables the believers to “shine as luminaries in the world” “in the midst of a crooked and perverted generation” as we “hold forth the word of life” (Philippians 2:15-16). This much should be clear.
There are however five foolish virgins and five wise. Whatever else we may say of the five foolish virgin we already know that they each have an oil lamp that is burning in the night and have gone forth to meet the bridegroom. The five foolish virgins represent believers as well as the five prudent virgins. What makes them foolish then? They are foolish because “when they took their lamps, [they] did not take oil with them” (verse 3), that is, in a separate vessel along with the oil that is in their lamps (verse 4). It is not that they do not have oil in their lamps; if they did not their lamps would not burn. It is that they did not have extra oil for when the oil in their lamps ran out.
What does this mean? What is meant by “oil in their vessels with their lamps”? If the lamp is the spirit, the vessel is the soul. Every believer has the Spirit of God dwelling in their spirit (Romans 8:9), but we still await the salvation of our soul. As Jesus tells His disciples in Matthew 10:39 and 16:24-26, a believer save or lose his or her soul when that Day comes. To have oil in our vessels means that the Holy Spirit has filled and saturated our soul. There will be an accounting before the Lord on that Day. Everyone who appears before the Lord will be redeemed (for the judgment of unbelievers will come much later) and will have the Holy Spirit in their spirits. That they will be manifested and judged and sorted and rewarded or disciplined will depend on the condition of their souls (this parable) and the lives they have lived (the next parable).
The Bridegroom, as we all know, delayed His coming, and in the course of that delay countless “virgins” have fallen asleep, that is, died (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14). Only those who are alive and remain until His coming are still awake (1 Thessalonians 4:15, 17). At midnight there is an archangel’s voice and the trumpet of God and “the dead in Christ will rise” when the Lord descends from heaven (1 Thessalonians 4:16). All the virgins who have fallen asleep will awaken.
And they will all trim their lamps—for they are yet burning. But some of the lamps are going out and the foolish virgins will not have extra oil in their vessels to pour into their lamps for they did not purchase the oil earlier. This is the point of the parable, it seems. The extra oil should have been purchased earlier, that is, before they had fallen asleep. We should fill our soul, as it were, with the influences of the Holy Spirit in the time that we have been given before we die, for afterwards it may be too late. For the soul to be made permeable to the Holy Spirit and thus rendered more transparent to the spirit requires that a price be paid. That price is what Jesus elsewhere refers to as the losing of the soul in order to find it (Matthew 10:39).
To lose the soul on that Day, when the Bridegroom actually arrives, instead of now in this life will be far more painful on account of the regret that one will suffer in view of what is lost. What will be lost is the wedding feast. The marriage of the Lamb begins with the celebration of the wedding feast. Those who are not ready will miss the feast, even if in due time they join the Lamb’s wife in the marriage itself. The words, “I do not know you,” means that the bridegroom does not approve of them; he does not recognize their right to be there; they are no longer invited. The door of the feast is shut.
What this probably refers to is the enjoyment of Christ’s presence during the time of the kingdom, the intermediate age when the Father subdues all things and lays them all at His feet (1 Corinthians 15:25). The wedding feast is only a short episode in the course of a marriage, but since the marriage of the Lamb and His people will last forever, the feast itself may last an age, that is, for the entire duration of the millennial kingdom (though the “thousand years” may not be literal but only signify what to us in this life seems like a very long time). In view of the length of the “ages of ages,” it will be but a day. With that in mind, I think that to speculate that the wedding feast lasts only for the length of time between the “rapture” and the Lord’s descent from the clouds is miscalculated.
The believers of whom the Lord does not approve will not reign with Christ during the time of the kingdom. As the Lord subdues all things to His kingship, they themselves will be in need of subduing. For this reason alone they cannot be His coworkers in the subduing. They will be “cast out.” When they themselves are at last subdued, then they can take their place in the bride and be united with the Lord in a blissful state forever.
The Parable of the Talents (25:14-30)
The parable of the talents is similar. Where it differs is that it is not about paying the price to have the Holy Spirit in the vessel of our souls but about what our use of spiritual gifts. The Spirit equips us to do the Lord’s work. This equipment refers to spiritual gifts, not to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual gifts work “upon” us (as an anointing) for the Holy Spirit to effect change in others, whether the church or the world. These gifts come to us according to our ability, whether that ability is natural or developed. To one is given more and to another less. We will not be judged according to how much gift we have been given but by what we have done with whatever gift we have been given.
It seems as if no believer has been given less than one talent. A single talent is about 6000 denarii, what a laborer could earn in about twenty years if he never spent a dime. This is no insignificant amount. Perhaps it would not be too far amiss to say that we all bury most of what the Lord has given us in terms of spiritual gift. The joy of the master is probably equivalent to the enjoyment of the wedding feast. Elsewhere this is called the inheritance of eternal life, not eternal life but the inheritance of it—that is, the enjoyment of it. For many the enjoyment of eternal life will be delayed. They will not enjoy it until after they are subdued by the Lord’s discipline, which may last well into—if not to the end of—the age of the kingdom. To miss the “inheritance” of the kingdom, to miss the joy of the master, to miss the wedding feast, and instead to go through fire and be disciplined by the Lord—this is to be cast into the outer darkness, in the place of weeping and deep regret (24:51, see also 22:13; 8:12 refers to believing Jews, see Luke 13:24-30).
All of these parables are a warning to the believer to take account of the Kingdom of the heavens. The Gospel according to John focused on eternal life. The focus of the Gospel according to Matthew is the kingdom (government) of the heavens. Not all believers will enjoy the Kingdom of the heavens in the age to come, but all come under its government now, and they will come under its government then. This is corollary to the gift of life. Divine life brings us under the divine providence but also under the divine governance.