Oil Lamp

Ready or Not, Here I Come!

When my kids were little, they used to be very excited to celebrate the New Year. It was a special night where we usually prepared their favourite meal – Chinese Food, and they were allowed to stay up well past their normal bedtime.

The air was filled with anticipation and excitement. After dinner, they would play games, or watch their favourite movie, while waiting to watch the ball drop at the stroke of midnight.

Their normal bedtime was around 8 pm and by 10 pm, the yawns were frequent and their eyelids droopy. But they persisted, not wanting to fall asleep and miss watching the ball drop. They did everything in their power to stay awake; they used every ounce of strength they had, but eventually they fell asleep. At first, they would just nod off, and abruptly wake up with renewed vigour and determination, but eventually, despite their best efforts, they just fell asleep.

Sometimes we just fall asleep.

The same happens in life: though we try with all our might to stay alert, sometimes we just fall asleep. We fall asleep out of tiredness or out of distrust. We fall asleep because we are disappointed or because we don’t want to see the truth of things around us. We fall asleep because we are superficial or because we have lost the courage to hold out a little longer. But the night becomes frustrating: things aren’t happening as we had hoped.

In the parable of the 10 Virgins, Jesus tells a similar story.

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be comparable to ten virgins, who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. “Five of them were foolish, and five were prudent. “For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the prudent took oil in flasks along with their lamps. “Now while the bridegroom was delaying, they all got drowsy and [began] to sleep. “But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet [him.]’ “Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. “The foolish said to the prudent, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ “But the prudent answered, ‘No, there will not be enough for us and you [too;] go instead to the dealers and buy [some] for yourselves.’ “And while they were going away to make the purchase, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding feast; and the door was shut. “Later the other virgins also came, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open up for us.’ “But he answered, ‘Truly I say to you, I do not know you.’ “Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour.

Mat. 25: 1 – 13NASB95

In Jesus’ day, the celebration of a wedding was a significant event in the Jewish community. Wedding celebrations lasted for many days, typically 5 – 7. A marriage was not only the union of a couple as husband and wife but also a joining of the families for mutual support. Usually, the entire village gathered for a wedding. Weddings generally occurred in the late autumn after the harvest when the sun sets earlier.

At the beginning of the wedding celebration, in the evening, the bridegroom, accompanied by his friends, went to fetch his betrothed from her father’s house. He would wear particularly splendid clothing and sometimes even a crown. She would be accompanied by her bridesmaids. This was a time of great anticipation for the bride and her closest friends.

In this parable, the groom was delayed. During his trip to his bride, it was customary for friends and other male family members to join the celebration, singing, telling stories, and eating and drinking wine along the way, often extending the duration of the groom’s trip.

The bridesmaids, although excited and full of anticipation, eventually fell asleep.

It is interesting that both the wise and the foolish bridesmaids fell asleep. It would seem that falling asleep was not the problem and in some ways that points us to God’s merciful awareness of the weakness of our human nature, especially given that Jesus knew that the time of his return was a long way off. It should also fill us with hope, because we too, if we’re honest, can fall asleep as we wait for Christ’s return.

The point Jesus is making then is not the sleeping, but rather the preparedness of those bridesmaids.

This is not to suggest that there won’t be consequences for sleepers. In the Garden of Gethsemane on the night he was betrayed, Jesus asked his disciples to pray and keep watch, but they fell asleep. Warning them, Jesus said “keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Mat 26:41 but still they fell asleep. Later, Peter fell into grave temptation and sin when he denied Christ three times. An action that Peter bitterly regretted until forgiven by the risen Jesus.

Traditionally, most commentators believe that the lamps in the story symbolize our lives, our conduct as Christians. The Greek word LAMPAS means a lamp, light, or torch. In His sermon on the mount Jesus used the same figure of the lamp, and explains it this way: “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” Mat 5: 16. The lamp, however, needs fuel to continue to burn and shine.

The oil in the parable represents the Holy Spirit. Like the bridesmaids in the parable, it is our responsibility to maintain the necessary amount of oil (the Holy Spirit) in our lamps so our light will shine before men.

In our case, we are indwelt with the Holy Spirit at the time of our new birth, but Paul points out in his letters to the churches at Thessalonica and Ephesus that there are things we do that can both stifle and grieve the Holy Spirit.

Do not quench the Spirit. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

1 Thess 5:19, Eph 4:30 NASB95

The Greek translation for the word quench can also mean: to cause to go out; to suppress, stifle, or extinguish.

Fire is often used in reference to the Holy Spirit (Isa 4:4, Mat 3:11, Acts 2:3-4). So the idea of quenching does not mean to be emptied of the Spirit it can convey the idea of suppressing or extinguishing the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

We can quench the Holy Spirit through unrighteous living, bitterness of spirit, lack of prayer, or neglecting the reading/study of scripture.

We can grieve or make the Holy Spirit sad by our sinful actions. If we are grieving the Spirit, we are not following God’s will for our lives and will not be ready for his return.

The problem of the foolish virgins is not sleepiness but something more fundamental. They never took care of the lamp that they were given. These verses come in the shadow of Matthew 24. In that chapter, Jesus, in his own words, has just laid out ten signs that we are to watch for that will signal his imminent return.

He says to us in Matthew 24: 42, “Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming.” In other words, you don’t know the exact day, but if you watch for these signs, you will know that my return is just around the corner.

Do not put your lamps away in a closet but have them on hand with oil to spare and lit, even if the world says that it’s foolish and pointless. And on the great day of his return you will be welcomed into the great banquet feast of the Lord Jesus Christ.